A Sense of Place and August Occasion

June 11, 1995|By PETER A. JAY

Pylesville. -- It is graduation season again, and under the oak trees in the courtyard of North Harford High School the Class of '95, gowned in green and gold, is poised to take flight.

The class is the 45th to graduate from North Harford. It is a small class, at least by metropolitan standards.

About 220 members will receive their diplomas on this hot June evening. And the ambiance of the ceremony, like that of the community the school serves, is distinctly non-metropolitan.

North Harford was built to serve the most rural section of what was then an entirely rural county.

Over 45 years the demographics have changed as the suburban fringe has rippled outward, but up here north of Deer Creek, near the Pennsylvania line, the countryside appears substantially unaltered.

Years ago, most of the North Harford students were from farms, and hoped to return to them.

Today the student body is more varied, and sophisticated kids from Bel Air and other great cultural centers no longer make fun of the school. They're more likely to envy it for its distinctive non-suburban identity.

On the platform this graduation evening, Principal Tom Gibson is introducing dignitaries and making the annual announcements. Please hold the applause and cheers, he asks, until all graduates have received their diplomas. He knows there will be less than total compliance with this request, and his audience knows he knows that, but it's still part of the ritual. There is a heaviness in the air, and thunder rumbles off to the west. If the storm arrives and graduation exercises have to be moved indoors in mid-ceremony it will be chaotic, but Mr. Gibson is prepared and has already explained just how the courtyard is to be evacuated. Few present believe it will rain, however, if only because rain would be so inappropriate.

Now the preliminaries are well under way. Megan Sharkey, the class president, is to speak. So are members of the board of education, some elected officials, the faculty advisor to the senior class, and a down-county person who has been invited too. Last will be the presentation of the diplomas.

A high school graduation is a universal American occasion, part of the shared national experience. The thousands of ceremonies occurring this spring echo the hundreds of thousands that have gone before as year has followed year and generation has followed generation.

Yet while each ceremony is reassuringly like all the others, at the same time each one, like each graduate, is unique.

Listening to the other speakers, the down-county person reflects on the attention they have all given to preparing and polishing their remarks.

Even the ones who do this sort of thing all the time, and who are experienced enough to know that few in attendance will remember a day later what they said, are plainly touched by the significance of the occasion and try their best to rise to it.

Walter Lippmann once said there was great pleasure in doing fine work anonymously. He was referring to unsigned newspaper editorials, but his words have resonance too for those who speak at graduations.

It is not yet dark, but a half-moon with a rain-on-the-way ring around it has appeared between the oak trees, behind the seated seniors but easily visible from the speakers stand.

The storm that had been threatening seems to have circled around Pylesville, however, for the thunder to the west is now in the east.

Taking his turn at the rostrum, the down-county person talks about the beauty and the special character of this hilly piece of countryside. Even though he's from the other side of Deer Creek, he's known it for a long time and has great affection for it. He tries to make the fairly simple point that it's a privilege to grow up in such a special place, but doesn't think he manages very well.

But no matter. Most of the graduates surely already know that, and the ones who don't will realize it later. Right now their minds are on something more immediate as one by one they come forward to receive their diplomas.

In the dusk the camcorders whirr, catching the handshakes, the smiles and the tears.

''I knew that one day I would look back at the bad times and laugh,'' Class President Sharkey had said earlier in the evening. ''But I didn't know that I'd look back at the good times and cry.''

Quite a special occasion indeed, thinks the down-county person as he heads home. On the way, as if to drive the point home, he is overtaken by the thunderstorm that detoured around the graduation exercises.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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