Out of America: Pomp in new circumstances

Rupert Cornwell
Tuesday 31 May 1994 23:02

METROPOLIS - For an Englishman in an unfamiliar setting, it was deeply comforting to hear the strains of 'Land of Hope and Glory' wafting across the soft green countryside in the lower Ohio valley. But I must have been the only person present remotely aware of the fact. For everyone else, it was just as the programme said, part of Elgar's Pomp And Circumstance - a perfect introduction to that most circumstantial, pomp-ridden and utterly American of occasions, the high school commencement, or graduation ceremony.

There may be more typical American towns than Metropolis, but I cannot immediately think of one. It stands on the Ohio river in the very heart of the country, where Illinois meets Kentucky, and the North merges into the South. Surprisingly, this is the only Metropolis in the entire USA. Less surprisingly, it has therefore become the honorary home of Superman, whose 15-foot bronze statue stands outside the local county courthouse, inscribed with his credo of 'Truth, Justice, The American Way.' It is also the town where Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz, was born and buried. But last weekend, all that mattered was the annual commencement at Massac County High School.

The suggestion had come from my American wife: what about a show of family solidarity to see her niece receive her diploma? I agreed, and was astounded. A British school sports day has some of the family atmosphere; end-of-term prizegiving has a dash of the solemnity. Neither however is the rite of passage that is an American commencement. There are presents and parties, high school yearbooks glossier and thicker than Cup Final programmes, and supplements in the local newspaper - all to ensure he or she never forgets.

Why, one wonders, do we have nothing to compare? Like most of my compatriots probably, I seem to have left every school I have attended like a thief in the night, unremarked and unrecorded. Perhaps that is just Britain, whose codified and ossified structures need no additional signposting by the educational system. With its mobile and ever changing society, America is the reverse. The rituals of commencement are a fixed point in a fluid world and - in a small town like Metropolis - a celebration of local roots and enduring values. Last weekend, there was no mistaking them.

The proceedings were conducted al fresco on the school football field and watched by 1,500 people packed into a small spectators' stand. On to the grass filed the 108 graduating students, every one resplendent in a royal blue academic gown and mortar board with a gold tassel. Everyone turned towards the flag, as the school band struck up the 'Star Spangled Banner', and a Christian minister delivered the Invocation. Then the homilies began. The seven top students of the Class Of 1994 each delivered mini- sermons clearly co-ordinated in advance. I jotted down the themes: leadership, responsibility, helping others, character, community, friends, family. Put them together and you had America's idealised vision of itself, and a perfect cue for the school choir to launch into 'God Bless America'.

But the commencement address itself, by retiring headmaster Sidney Sexton, was unexpected. Instead of the usual guff about boundless horizons and the world's future resting on their shoulders, he talked to his students about that most un-American topic, failure. After an overdose of American patriotism, Mr Sexton's advice to prepare for inevitable setbacks was a welcome intrusion of common sense. I doubt the students were very appreciative, but they should have been. Certainly, life would hardly be bearable without a measure of self-delusion - who at Massac County High School's biggest night of the year wanted to be reminded that some junior students had been found with guns on campus, that others had been involved in a drugs bust?

But these are tough times, when less qualified school-leavers face unemployment or the wretchedly paid jobs in the garages, restaurants or supermarkets where they once did part- time holiday work. That was Mr Sexton's point, as the flashlights popped, and proud parents rolled their camcorders. And even so, on this unreal evening of early summer, America still seemed, well, a Land Of Hope And Glory.

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