End-of-school rituals, school reunions, and school culture

Emerging from the Bridge of Years

Back in this post on school culture, I shared Craig Jerald’s five sets of behaviors that “send strong signals” about a school’s “vision and values” – about its culture – and rituals were his first set of behaviors: celebrations and ceremonies, rites of passage, and shared quirks and mannerisms. About two weeks ago, my son’s elementary school finished with one of its own rituals, called the Bridge of Years. It happens the last day of school. Students from kinder to grade four line up on either side of the walkway in the school’s front, with the kinder kids nearest the school’s front door, the fourth graders at the other end. They all raise their arms and hold hands forming a tunnel over the walkway. The school’s fifth graders then exit the school and duck through this human tunnel, squeezing through the smaller kids at the start, the tunnel getting bigger as they proceed, reminding them, as one parent friend told me, “of how they’ve grown during their years” at the school. A lovely and powerful ritual.

School reunions are another kind of year-end ritual, and two weekends ago I attended my 30th college reunion. Yes, I know: I’m ancient as a redwood. That said, it was a wonderful three days, and I was able to catch up with many friends/classmates. Certainly, any reunion is itself filled with rituals: At mine we heard (and some sang) familiar songs, visited iconic spots on campus, and shared often-told stories. The undergraduates who were on campus to work at the reunions were very patient with us. They were also an important participant in the weekend, as we shared our experience with them, preparing them for their own every-five-year gathering after graduation.

It got me thinking about reunion events at the K-12 level, when alumni come back near or at the end of the school year to celebrate and be celebrated. Some high school reunions are far more elaborate than others. Many independent schools put on weekend-long gatherings, with events and meals and ceremonies, much like my college reunion. Others are more low key. My Connecticut high school has a reunion dinner for our class every five years, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, hoping to catch out-of-town folks when they’re back visiting family.

Yes, my high school mascot is a green dragon

Schools, no matter the grade level, should do what they can to encourage a reunion ritual. Whether it’s taking part in a year-end event such as the one that happens at my son’s school or spending a full weekend on campus, one filled with activities and former classmates, reunions ensure the longevity of a place, building on and transmitting to all participants a school’s culture. Think of the kinder kids involved in the Bridge of Years event and the undergrads that we met at my reunion: They are a ways from being the center of those rituals, but by taking part in it, they learn that ritual and prepare to transmit it to others. In fact they’re already transmitting it, as they go back to their peers and tell them of what just happened, widening the news and influence and magic of that school ritual even more.

Thanks to Erica for the Bridge of Years pic. I got the image from Baker Library here. I got the Hamden High School emblem here.

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