Saturday, May 7, 2011

Baccalaureate Welcoming Speech 2003

As members of the Senior Class of 2011 wraps up their academic year and high school careers, Commencement Week traditions are once again on the horizon. As tribute, the following excerpt--sometimes humorous and thoroughly informative--was pulled from the Baccalaureate Welcoming Speech delivered by John Martin Doggett, Jr. (pictured above), in 2003:

"Over the past few years, I have used the occasion of Baccalaureate to speak about the origins of some of the customs, ceremonies, trappings and traditions surrounding graduation exercises. This has forced me to become a student again and engage in some research for my talks. One year, I investigated the origins of the Baccalaureate service. Two years ago, I looked into the genesis of the colors and style of academic regalia worn by faculty. Last year, I spoke about history of commencement ceremonies. I can already see a few eyes rolling back in heads of some members of my audience who may be legitimately wondering if they had mistakenly come into a bad version of the History channel. Others, hearing my topic, may be thinking that it is ironic that they would be invited into a house of worship only to be punished; they could probably have had the same experience in a dentist's chair undergoing a root canal procedure.

However, I ask that you briefly indulge a frustrated History teacher who rarely has an opportunity to get into the classroom. I thought it would be interesting to learn a big about two unique GDA graduation rituals: walking around the milestone and jumping over the Mansion House garden wall. Information provided by Judy Klein and books by Jack Ragle and Mary Elaine Gage have given me fresh insight into these traditions.

I had assumed that jumping over the Mansion House Wall was a practice that stretched back to [the] era of Master Moody in the early days of the Academy. Not so. It turns out that the present Mansion House garden wasn't even in existence until the 20th century. What was actually located in the area where the garden is now situated was a small wooden building that was used for "human convenience". To the uninitiated, this is 19th century code for outhouse. I would venture a guess that precious few people were broad jumping in that area in the 1900s.

Conversations with various older alumni have revealed that no one before 1950 can ever remember jumping over the Mansion House Wall. All of those alums questioned could remember every Latin declension they ever did at GDA; so I am reasonably certain that they would have at least a passing memory of such a watershed event. On the other hand, graduates of 1951 on all seem to have vivid recollections of taking the leap. 1951 happens to be the year of my birth. I know it is hard to believe; most of you are probably operating under the illusion that I was in my early thirties. In any event, the first thing that came into my mind was that this coincidence was indicative of some magical convergence of cosmic forces. Sadly, more thorough research suggests a very different explanation. Apparently, the then Headmaster Ted Eames was considered quite an exacting and controlling figure. Ramrod straight and taciturn, he probably didn't get his nickname "the Stick" by accident. He insisted that all official school functions be highly scripted and regimented. Apparently jumping over the wall was a spontaneous expression of disapproval by the graduates, to what they felt was the stodginess of Mr. Eames and perhaps his insistence that they sing a tuneless dirge of a song that he had brought from his days at Amherst College. With all due respect to my good friend Mr. Leavitt, this melody was probably the best you could expect from a junior college but I completely understand how the discerning GDA students would rise up in righteous indignation to such an indignity and literally vote with their feet. This 50's style student protest of sorts was not exactly the Berkeley Free Speech Movement of the Columbia riots, but it was certainly revolutionary for quaint Byfield. Apparently the wall-jumping practice was repeated in 1952 and so, in prep school terms, it became a tradition [see photo below of members of the Class of 1969 Jumping the Wall]. The former use of this patch of real estate has not deterred any jumpers for the last half century, thus probably explaining the term leap of faith.

Before Governor Dummer graduates jump over the Mansion House garden wall, they march around the Milestone, which is located in front of Lt. Governor Dummer's ancestral home. In the early 1700s, the old Bay Road ran north from Boston through Essex County all the way to the New Hampshire line and was set off with markers indicating the mileage to Boston and the towns along the route. Only 10 of these milestones remain; the oldest surviving stone is located in front of the Mansion House [see photo below from 1910]. It is dated 1708 (which predates the Mansion House by at least 5 years), and it gives the information 5N 33B--5 miles to Newburyport and 33 miles to Boston. It is made of simple fieldstone with a simple flat face. It was carved by John Hartshorn, the first gravestone carver in the area of Massachusetts.

Our friend Headmaster Eames, younger, but still anally retentive, instituted this practice of marching around the Milestone in 1931, at the start of his 29-year headmastership. Apparently that generation of students was more compliant. The senior class assembled on Sunset Rock adjacent to what is now the French Building in their caps and gowns. They eventually descended the hill (this was before the days of ambulance-chasing personal injury attorneys) and filed slowly around the historic marker to symbolize their reaching this important educational landmark. Give Mr. Eames some credit, some nice symbolism here. This practice became the culminating even in the GDA graduation exercise until jumping the wall was introduced twenty years later.

So much for the history lession..."