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Educationally Speaking: Reflecting on Class of 1903 commencement

Very occasionally, though, an envelope arrives that is addressed to me personally and in stylish cursive writing. When this happens, I know it originated with someone of advanced vintage, someone practiced in legible cursive penmanship, someone who still understands the impact of a handwritten epistle.

Joe Graves
Joe Graves
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When I was a kid, one of the joys of summer was the arrival of the mailman. OK, I was 6 so, unless it was close to my birthday, there was never anything inside the mailbox for me. My mother would often receive letters from relatives. She would welcome these. My father never met an envelope he liked. That is, I suppose, the problem. When we like mail, we get none. When we hate it, in it floods.

Or used to. The reality of instant communications has noticeably reduced the amount of mail I receive, especially at work. I have this gigantic mailbox, at least a cubic foot, and many days, it stands empty. Even the Department of Education, once the source of much of my incoming correspondence, now sends everything virtually. What does arrive are unrequested catalogs, mass mailings, and the postal flotsam and jetsam that hold zero interest. Even on those days when my mailbox does welcome an arrival, I can often deal with the entirety of its contents by dropping it into the nearby recycling tub. I smile as I do so.

Very occasionally, though, an envelope arrives that is addressed to me personally and in stylish cursive writing. When this happens, I know it originated with someone of…advanced vintage, someone practiced in legible cursive penmanship, someone who still understands the impact of a handwritten epistle.

Recently, one arrived from Chris Sargent, a retired auditor of special education programming who worked closely with our director, Tracy Christensen. In her letter, she explained that she was sending me the enclosed object because she couldn’t bear to throw it away. I have the same struggle, finding it easier to give "treasures" to someone even if they ultimately discard them.

But I won’t be throwing this one away. What she sent me was a commencement program for the MHS Class of 1903. Though yellowed, it was otherwise in perfect condition, unlike, no doubt, the members of that class. Still, here were their names, all 61 of them. But it wasn’t just their names. It also included the “Programme” from that special day, which included the invocation, then presentations — original songs, recitations, compositions, duets, biographies — by at least 36 of the graduates. One of the biographies was of the sitting president (to the extent that he ever sat), Theodore Roosevelt. Graduate Howard Rew performed a reading of Aunt Patience’s Doughnuts, a humorous piece filled with the kind of dialect that makes recitation entertaining but challenging. Other Mitchell names leapt from the page, as well. There would most certainly have been many more but most didn’t complete high school in 1903, settling for graduation from grammar school or much, much less.

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Commencement began at 2 at the “High School Building.” Based on the presentations, it must have continued until 7 or 8. Today, we can’t have commencement for more than an hour or people all but have a stroke. They apparently immersed themselves in the activity, from Hail Columbia! to the valedictory and presentation of diplomas. Perhaps in a time before (free of?) television and even radio, when children learned musical instruments as a source of enjoyment for the family, commencement was a much-anticipated evening of entertainment. There is something quite touching in that, families gathering around their children and luxuriating in them as a source of not just pride but of amusement, learning, delight.

There is melancholy in it as well. The Class of 1903 is no more. Sixty-one Mitchell High School students, who painstakingly selected ‘Always Higher’ as their class motto, white and apple green as their class colors, and pink and white roses as their class flower, have all moved far past caring about such things which once meant so much.

Friday, June 5, 1903 was a special day. But today, none remains to recall it, not the proud reception of diplomas, not the amusing flubs one student or another made in their recitations, not even the painful stumbles of a student who reached a bit too high.

Much of that I cannot know, but I can at least imagine it, through the assistance of a Commencement Program from the Class of 1903 which arrived, entirely unexpectedly, in the mail.

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Opinion by Joe Graves
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