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Grinnell traditions I miss (and mostly missed): Graduation pranks

Each year I have been at Grinnell, we have watched students graduate in the area west of the Forum and southwest of Noyce. It’s been an impressive streak; we’ve managed to avoid rain each of those nineteen years [1]. There have been some changes. They built a stage. They moved the students in front of the faculty [2]. They eliminated the awarding of the Iowa Educator of the Year [3]. They started awarding an honorary degree to a K-12 teacher nominated by a Grinnell student [4]. They started allowing everyone close to graduation to march [5]. Henry Walker stepped down as assistant marshal after twenty-some-odd years of service. A variety of student groups started giving students stoles. Some of those have been significant changes, some have been less significant.

The ways that students participate in graduation have changed, too. I still recall my first graduation at Grinnell. Pam Ferguson had just stepped down as president, and was not at graduation. So, each student, after receiving a diploma, stepped over to a giant posterboard and added a small colored square to the posterboard. At the end, we had a giant picture of Pam at graduation. I think the students I talked to said We really wanted to have her at our graduation, so we found a way to do so.

At the time, I heard from colleagues that graduation pranks were a tradition. In a previous year, the first student had put a goldfish bowl at the front of the stage. Each student added some gravel, or some plants, or some water. Finally, the last student across the stage dropped a goldfish in the bowl. That strikes me as memorable, perhaps more memorable than any graduation speech [6].

My second year at Grinnell, the prank didn’t quite work. We had just hired Russell K. Osgood as president. The students wanted to make a point about costs and class, and decided that each of them would hand him a golf ball. They envisioned Russell getting bogged down with golf balls. However, Russell graciously accepted each golf bowl and, when he turned to grab the next diploma from Stephanie Henning [7], he handed her the golf ball. She, in turn, would drop it in the tray of diplomas. As each tray emptied of diplomas and filled with golf balls, Les Olinger [8] would swap in a new one. I’m not sure that anyone even noticed the golf ball exchanges, other than those who knew about the prank.

As far as I can tell, that was the last year the students came up with anything significant.

That’s not to say that individual students have not come up with some interesting things. Many add decorations to their outfits. Some greet the president in interesting ways [9]. I’ve seen at least one student who presented as male for most of their career walk across stage in a spectacular gown. A few have their advisors on stage; I appreciate the hugs I see. A few have parents who are faculty or staff or alumni; once in a while the parent gets to hand their child the diploma. I find these latter things a particularly special part of graduation.

But, you know what? I’d still like to see another good class-wide endeavor at graduation. Something respectful and memorable. We have creative students, I’m sure that some set will come with something in the next few years [10].

[1] At least I think we have. I may have missed on graduation, but I think it still didn’t rain.

[2] That’s probably a good idea.

[3] That wasn’t such a good idea.

[4] That was a great idea, although it did create some debate among the faculty.

[5] For a while, students would discover on the day before graduation day that they had not passed a class, and would not be allowed to march. We now give those students a blank diploma, which is a much better solution.

[6] Kumail Nanjiani ’01’s speech will be a notable exception.

[7] I am not certain that was her name then, but it’s her name now, so I’ll stick with it.

[8] I think it was Les Olinger. He certainly served as diploma tray switcher at many graduation ceremonies.

[9] No, Mr. Mysterious, selfies are not a good way to greet the president.

[10] Please do not give me credit or blame if they do.

Version 1.0 of 2017-02-02.