Entering their next stage

Tuesday at Merriweather saw five hight school graduations, 1,734 graduates, 80 minutes of ' Pomp and Circumstance' and plenty of wisdom dispensed

May 31, 2007|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,sun reporter

They are out in the world now -- although still under your roof, eating your food, using your washing machine, still not making their bed, still running up text message bills. Except for all that, your high school graduates are finally on their own.

High schools across Maryland are holding commencements this season. Graduation time anywhere remains an enduring ritual, a formula of processionals, addresses, interludes, introductions, speeches, tassel turning and a whole lot of names read very carefully. Graduation ceremonies rain cliches and advice. Yet, the old customs can still feel new.

For the first time in its history, Merriweather Post Pavilion was the site of five continuous ceremonies in one day -- 1,734 graduates, thousands more family and friends, 80 minutes of "Pomp and Circumstance," 20 confiscated beach balls, countless and elusive air horns, and five appearances by one indefatigable county executive.

From 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday, the Howard County school system, with a lot of help from its friends at Merriweather, seamlessly staged a procession of graduations. Three more ceremonies are scheduled today at the pavilion, but you should have been there Tuesday.

"Life is to enjoy -- not to get through," Howard County Board of Education member Lawrence Cohen told graduates.

Life was both Tuesday.

8:15 a.m.

Cool blue morning at Merriweather. As with rock acts, there is also the load-in for graduation day. Seniors from Wilde Lake High in Columbia have loaded into Merriweather. Back stage (oh, this hallowed ground where Hendrix, Joplin, The Who played -- and there, the "Ronstadt" dressing room), Ronnie Bohn, graduation coordinator, looks like a roadie for Grad Fest. The former principal at Mount Hebron High will be here all day and night. She has a chair with her name on it.

8:30 a.m.

The drill begins: Men in dark suits ask guests to refrain from applauding when their child's name is called. This is to maintain the dignity of the occasion. This will be roundly ignored. Somewhere in the back rows of the pavilion, air horns are cocked and ready. "Pomp and Circumstance" ushers in the first Class of 2007 for the day. Forget the giant video screens, parents twist in their seats in search of their grad. They all kind of look alike in those caps and gowns. Then, a quick wave and quicker smile. There she is. There he is. Can it be? Eighteen years ago hurling toward this moment.

"It is now our turn to dream big," Michelle McGrain tells her classmates.

"We are tomorrow's leaders today," Matthew Dunnagan tells his classmates.

"I'll keep this brief," says Howard County Executive Ken Ulman in the first of his five appearances. "We need your ideas. We need your solutions and innovations. Above all in the days and weeks ahead, be safe."

9:10 a.m.

A voice in the crowd: "MOMMY LOVES YOU!"

9:20 a.m.

Principal Restia Whitaker invokes The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. He invokes The Lion King. He earns a standing ovation. And, by the way, his wife is having contractions. Janet Siddique of the Howard County Board of Education begins to award the degrees but not before issuing one of the great truths of high school graduation. You will probably remember only two words: your name.

Changing colors

10:10 a.m.

Three hundred and five graduates of Wilde Lake move their tassels from the left side to the right. Merriweather erupts. "Pomp and Circumstance" leads them out, quickly. Ronnie Bohn and another coordinator, Theresa Farson, hit the stage. Out with Wilde Lake's green and gold colors, in with Hammond High's maroon and gold. The palms and lilies stay. Fresh bottled water for the mostly fresh guests. Name tags on the folding chairs.

A truck arrives bearing fragile equipment for George Benson, but the jazz guitarist is not performing at Hammond's graduation. Benson and Al Jarreau are playing the next day at the Capital Jazz Fest. Meaning, this stage needs to be cleared by tonight. Meaning, after the jazz festival leaves town, three more graduations will be held Thursday. Meaning, maybe these kids can appreciate what the grown-ups are doing for their "five seconds of glory," as Bohn says.

11:00 a.m.

Leeann Beall-Read, an English teacher at Hammond High, has learned to pronounce 312 names. She is not nervous. "I used to teach speech." Hammond's kids have been loaded in. "Last year, our ceremony was an hour, 22 minutes.

"We're going for a record this year."

11:30 a.m.

"Pomp and Circumstance" right on time. Principal Sterlind Burke Sr. looms behind the clamped, black stage curtain. Many of these students had him as their middle school principal. This is his first commencement speech at Hammond. "If we do it right, it should touch everyone's hearts."

Seth Orensky tells his classmates, "For the fourth year, we were the loudest class at the pep rally."

Roxanne Bublitz tells her classmates, "We are entering a world without a curriculum."

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