Hi! Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back and join me as I look into some of the amusing challenges offered when writing historical fiction. The come back and help me educate Alan in the complexities of the American school system.
JANE: All right, Alan. I’m ready to continue making Buffy the Vampire Slayer
and all our other American school dramas intelligible for you. What’s your next question?
ALAN: There are so many weird words and concepts that I’ve come across over the years that it’s hard to know where to begin. How about this… what’s a class ring?
JANE: A class ring is a ring, usually crafted in gold or gold-colored metal. Often, the emblem of the school is worked into the band. The “stone,” I believe, is in some way representative of the school colors. You usually get your ring sometime late in your junior year – probably because by then it seems likely you will graduate from that school.
However, I’m guessing on a lot of this. I went to an all-girls’ Catholic high school. Our class ring was a tasteful affair: gold band set with a rectangular black onyx bezel on which was a very small representation of the school seal. I wore mine quite happily until I discovered that something in the band gave me hives.
Class rings gained a special significance because, in the days of yore, if a guy gave a girl his ring to wear, that meant they were “going steady.” Not quite an engagement ring, but close.
Do you have any emblem similar to the class ring, something that marks you as having attended (and presumably graduated from) a specific school? How about those “class ties” I’ve read about?
ALAN: No – we have absolutely nothing like that. That’s why I find the idea so odd. I can’t imagine any circumstance where I’d ever want wear anything representative of my old school.
You mentioned our “class ties” – I think you actually mean “old school ties.” They are really only associated with the old, and extremely snobbish, public schools (you’d call them private schools) like Eton and Harrow and Rugby and they are yet another manifestation of the British class system. A friend of mine got a scholarship to Cambridge University. He told me that he felt quite out of place there – it was full of public school people and old school ties and he, being a simple working class Yorkshire lad, just couldn’t fit in.
JANE: Right! Old school ties… Thanks for clarifying.
Why do you folks get public and private schools mixed up? I knew you used the terms backwards, but I never could figure out why private schools were called “public.”
ALAN: Oh, it’s all perfectly logical. In medieval times all schools were private schools, generally run by the church, with lots of complex rules about who was (and was not) eligible to attend. From the 16th century onwards, schools that were independent of ecclesiastical control started to appear. These schools were open to all (hence they were public schools). However they had no source of funding so in practice they were only open to all who could afford the fees. In other words, the sons of the gentry. And that had the side effect of making the public schools private in all but name.
More modern, government-funded schools are properly public in the true sense of the word. But we don’t call them public schools because that’s what public schools are called.
JANE: That’s wonderful! What a perfect, logical explanation. Thank you for solving a mystery that has puzzled me for decades. Now, where were we?
ALAN: Another phenomenon that seems to be peculiarly American is the idea of a yearbook. From context, these seem to be a collection of formal photographs of students with embarrassing comments written beneath each picture. What puzzles me is why anyone with an ounce of self-respect would ever agree to pose for these in the first place, particularly if someone is going to say something horrid in the caption. But then, I am notoriously camera shy…
JANE: You’re pretty close on yearbooks. However, a good yearbook is far more than a collection of photos. It’s also a memory book of the major events of the previous school year. One of my first pieces of published writing was an essay on “Field Day” at my high school. I don’t remember exactly why Field Day was important (except that we didn’t have classes, a rare occasion at my very academically demanding school). However, I do remember my opening sentence: “Sunshine on their shoulders and bare feet…”
My high school was very formal, so we didn’t have the embarrassing quotation thing. Therefore, someone else is going to have to explain that one to you. However, yearbooks also often served as autograph books. At the end of the year, students raced around getting their books signed by friends, especially those who were graduating.
ALAN: The closest we ever got to that was a group photograph. It was taken on a panoramic camera. Traditionally, once the camera has swept past one end, someone is supposed to run round behind the group (out of camera shot) and then stand at the other end ready to be caught as the camera completes its traverse, thus giving the impression of twins. I’m not sure anyone has ever really done this, but that’s the urban legend. However since we actually did have twins in our class, the teachers deliberately placed one twin at each end to give the impression that the prank had been played, even though it hadn’t! We all enjoyed the meta-joke.
JANE: I like it, too… Especially since the teachers got into it.
I know you have other questions, but I am reminded that I have work to do. Let’s take them up next time. Meanwhile, I hope our readers will fill you in on other details of class rings and yearbooks.