Pomp and Circumstance

Pomp and Circumstance brings my allergies out. Every year when they play that graduation song, my eyes water. Sniffles take over my nose. In 2021 when the commencement ceremony moved from an indoor arena to our football stadium as a covid precaution, pre-recorded music filled the air and very few students walked across the stage in person. In 2022, moving outdoors seems to be a wonderful new tradition of finishing high school on the home turf. This year I’m just happy it’s over.

In spite of the bittersweet farewells in front of the school banner, the most prevalent feeling among my teacher colleagues is exhaustion. Unlike last year’s unprecedented pandemic anxiety, where everyone acknowledged the severity of the crisis, this year we all moved back into our classrooms and pretended it was a normal school year. 

I wore a fake smile under my mask from September to June. High school seniors went through the motions of reading and writing. We faked the status quo as fights broke out in the hallways, as Omicron spread through the community, then state-mandated testing took over. We stumbled through a workload crisis as teachers dropped like flies and no substitutes showed up. We finished the school year mourning the 19 students and 2 teachers murdered in their Texas classroom on a day that should have been the best end-of-year celebration. 

We. Are. Tired.

Despite moments of true pride and joy, every teacher I know has said that this school year has been the single most difficult of their careers. Far more than 2020 or 2021. The disconnect between our deeply-held values and the toxic testing culture that education bureaucrats force on us creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. Yet we wear a happy face. We try to protect our students from the worst policies and expectations. 

The inspiration for the song title Pomp and Circumstance comes from Shakespeare’s Othello, which we teach in Honors English 12. In the play, Othello’s identity as a soldier gives him self-confidence and social standing. When he marries Desdemona, his military role diminishes. He is lost without the ability to prove himself in war and becomes isolated and unhinged – enough to kill his wife in a fit of unfounded jealousy.

As I struggle to make sense of the world, Othello’s loss of identity brings to mind the young man who bought guns on a whim then shot up Uvalde children. Like my students, most mass shooters are recent high school graduates. Suddenly and terrifyingly, they are without the safety and routine of high school. They have no way to prove their manhood; their isolation makes them fall prey to their own obsessions. Just like Othello. We have to suffer the consequences over and over again because our leaders won’t pass common-sense gun laws. Teachers now have to plan for these once unimaginable circumstances. 

Composer Sir Edward Elgar chose the title Pomp and Circumstance in 1901 to illustrate the disconnect between military pageantry and the terror of war. After two years of pandemic disruption, we need that pageantry. It feels like we have lived through a war. 

The effects of 18 months in isolation played out in our school hallways, bathrooms, and classrooms. In the wake of the BLM movement, police officers were removed from schools. Security was understaffed. Record levels of violence marked the first semester. Drug abuse became so prevalent that administrators had to close off certain bathrooms. And I work in a “good school.”

How many times did an ambulance show up quietly to rush a child to the emergency room because of an overdose? Mental health meltdowns caused some students to become loud and defiant; some refused to work. Others simply disappeared. Phone calls to different homes would reveal that student after student was “dealing with some mental health issues.” Yet mandatory testing continued and Central Office pretended that everything was okay.

So when seniors promenaded into the stadium this year, I stood and clapped while Board of Education officials, the guest speaker, the Superintendent of Schools, and the principal led the procession wearing robes with colorful hoods and arm stripes indicating academic achievement. I snapped pictures of students wearing tassels, cords, and stoles signifying affiliations and accomplishments: National Honor Society, the Maryland Seal of Biliteracy, Eagle Scout, 240+ hours of volunteer community service. My smile was real.

Then I saw M, whose entire apartment building flooded in September and who became homeless. This student endured a 25-mile bus journey to get to school every day – and had to work every afternoon. When I saw M. in a cap and gown, my allergies really started acting up.  

The orchestra played ceremonial fanfare as graduates tossed their hats in the air and hugged each other. I grinned at the happy normalcy of it all. 

We honor our graduates with Pomp and Circumstance to acknowledge the end of their K-12 journey. This year, we are honoring so much more. We are all survivors. 

When it was over, I went home and curled into a ball.

Published by

evaksullivan

Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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