The school year has finally come to a close but, before students and teachers rejoice at the long summer days that lie ahead, they take the time to pause and partake in that time-honored celebration of achievement: the graduation ceremony. How have Brooklynites celebrated this singular milestone throughout the years? We have numerous graduation programs in our collection, and by studying their content, as well as the physical program themselves, we see how the ceremonies were a reflection of their era, and how they changed with the times.
The early commencement programs were elegant, formal, and dignified, befitting the solemn ritual taking place. When the students graduated from Bushwick High School in 1922 the evening program featured a violin solo by Chopin, and a selection from "The Merry Wives of Windsor". The program cover was classic and minimal.
This trend toward formality continued throughout the 1930's, and 40's. There were some exceptions though. Both the 1940 and 1967 graduating class from Samuel J. Tilden favored the modern. Incorporating the Tilden owl, they featured a smart and contemporary design cover for their commencement.
By the 1950's schools had expanded their graduation repertoire to include Broadway show tunes. In 1950 the graduates of James Madison, which incidentally included future Supreme Court judge, Ruth Bader, selected Jerome Kern's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" from the 1933 musical Roberta.
The 1960's ushered in a sense of freedom, revolution, non-conformity, and ethnic pride. These societal changes were reflected in the commencement exercises as well. Sarah H. Hale high school graduates began the turbulent decade in 1960 with a program including the Negro national anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by James Weldon Johnson. In 1961 they selected "The Sound of Music" by Rodgers and Hammerstein as one their numbers.
The ascent of popular music along with revolutionary fervor continued into the 70's, with schools choosing any mixture of pop, folk, Broadway, and classical music for their programs. Simon F. Rotschild Junior High School marched in on Elger's "Pomp and Circumstance" in 1974, but any semblence of tradition flew out the window after that. Black pride and Broadway were on full display with the featured songs of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," "To Be Young Gifted and Black" by Nina Simon, "There's a Place for Us" from West Side Story, and the gospel/jazz song by Billy Taylor that became a civil rights anthem, "I Wish I Knew How it Feels To Be Free."
The commencement program at I.S. 218 featured a Pop Art commencement cover for their 1971 ceremony. Featured solos were Burt Bacharach's "What the World Needs Now," Michael LeGrand's jazz standard, "Watch What Happens," and Roto and Mancini's "A Time for Us."
Since then the digital world has come to dominanate the landscape, transforming music, and graphics. It was inevitable that this technology would also alter the graduation ceremony as schools seek new ways to project sound and visuals. Even with all of todays technological wizardy, students, parents and teachers still need to come together and celebrate their hard work, and as the graduates of MS 340 confirmed last year, todays schools still want to keep the ceremony classy.