September 30, 2000
Not many people are able to divulge in mixed company their most shameful act. But I stand before you, be you stranger or friend, critic or fan, ready to tell you that deed among all others that I most regret: in 1980, when the Gold Rush sent people scavenging through their drawers for long forgotten but suddenly valuable trinkets, I sold my high school ring. This, then, is an essay not about an object, but about the memory of one.
What brings this to mind today is a note from a former teaching colleague. She was able to answer some mail last week because her class was at the ring assembly. Ah yes, I remembered — the ring assembly, where each tenth grader receives a fat envelope full of glossy brochures designed to help them make that first big high school decision: what should my class ring look like? With nearly thirty pages of choices among more than four hundred options, the task is not a simple one.
I always looked forward to this event, and built it into my lesson plans, using the sales material to teach writing techniques almost as numerous as the ring choices themselves: expository (here’s what I’ve chosen for my class ring); personal (why I want a peace symbol and a zodiac sign on my class ring); even persuasive (here’s why Mom and Dad should pay $350 for a ring I will soon give to a girl they are sure is a bad influence). Thus I would help my students through the process of designing a ring that, in the words of the brochure, “expresses the true, sparkling you.”
Choosing a class ring was not so complicated for me back in 1964. In fact, like many aspects of my schooling, all of the design decisions had been made for me, and my only choice was between “regular size” ($27.50) or the more petitely scaled “girls’ size” ($18.75). The ring itself was standard. Of 10 karat yellow gold, it featured a faceted stone in deep blue (the Blessed Mother’s blue). The basic design, therefore, neatly incorporated the school colors. Around the stone was the name of the school: Bishop McDevitt High School, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The left side bore the school seal with its motto, Religione Sapientia Colitur (In religion grows wisdom), and on the right was an engraving of the Twin Towers (the building’s singular architectural feature), and “1965,” my year of graduation. The only unique element was my initials, to be etched on the inside behind the seal.
There was an underlying philosophy that only seniors might have a deep enough understanding of what it meant to be a Crusader and be mature enough to wear the emblem of one. Thus we ordered our class rings in the spring of junior year and received them on the first day of school the following September. I remember the blue velvet boxes they came in, with a little brochure outlining their care. Soon afterward there was a candlelit investiture ceremony attended by the whole student body where the principal, a Catholic priest, blessed the rings and asked those receiving them to pledge always to live according to the precepts and spirit of the school and the faith it signified. Although obtaining a ring was optional and its expense argued in many homes (mine among them), I don’t know anyone among my five hundred classmates who didn’t have one.
Having a class ring was important to me. Happy and secure only at school, I felt profoundly connected to Bishop McDevitt. I arrived early and stayed late and participated in as many activities as I could. School was a place to escape the angers and the secrets that had become my home, although I was probably not really aware of that then. None among the four colleges at which I have earned degrees has been able to forge that kind of bond. And although I no longer practice as a Catholic, Bishop McDevitt remains the only school I continue to support financially.
I wore my ring throughout my senior year. For a brief period beginning in the summer after graduation I exchanged it for a “regular size” model, and that ring’s owner wore mine on his little finger. On the windy January night I demanded he return it, he did so by pitching it at me from the bottom of the driveway. It hit the garage door and its top lip, which had so magically reflected the candlelight the day I received it, got bent. I don’t think I ever wore it again.
Nevertheless, I kept it among my treasures through moves to two colleges, three apartments, and the house I occupy today. Gradually, as I developed wider associations and a different, although not always accurate, sense of who I was, it lost its cachet. In the late winter of 1980, a period I can now identify as one of deep personal confusion, I tossed it into a bag along with charm bracelets, candlesticks, and a monogrammed baby spoon I’d never been allowed to use, and sold the lot to an itinerant metal scavenger who’d set up shop at the Holiday Inn. I netted $200 that day (the ring brought nearly half of it). I used the money for a trip to New York City to see Richard Gere in Bent.
In the years since, working through personal pain to find my “usable past,” I have come to regret that I severed myself from an artifact that once symbolized so much for me, and that would allow the woman I have become to touch and hold a part of the girl I was. Among those with whom I have shared this story is one classmate who expressed alarm that I sold for money what was essentially a religious icon. Another, wondering if the design of McDevitt’s ring remains eternal, urged me to investigate replacing it.
Because I graduated from a private parochial school with strong ethnic and religious ties and not one I was assigned to because of municipal boundaries, I wondered if my experience had been unique. I asked some of my contemporaries who attended public school about their perceptions of identifying with their schools and being attached to their rings.
My friends eagerly shared stories that echoed my own. Many still have their rings, and those who parted with theirs can recall the circumstances. One woman who also visited the Holiday Inn back in 1980 remembers retrieving her ring from a bucket containing hundreds of others and withdrawing it from the lot she offered for sale. Her recently deceased father had been the principal of her school, and something in the metal buyer’s heartless toss had opened a vein.
In schools everywhere this week, students are busy making their choices. Had I paid for my own ring from minimum wage earnings, I would have had to work about twenty hours to obtain the item. Today’s fast food jockey has to toil nearly five times that for a ring of similar quality. This fact alone will mean that fewer of today’s students will have a ring, even if they want one. Some, who attend a particular school only because they currently live with someone within a district’s boundaries, will ignore the whole process.
The class leaders will decorate their rings with symbols reflecting their school activities and achievements, points that before were made with letter sweaters and charm bracelets. Others who feel little connection to their school will celebrate themselves with images of skateboards and unicorns. It is even possible that some will design a ring that does not bear the name of the school. Their purchase will be delivered to them in a little plastic bag that they will pick up at a table set up outside the cafeteria.
For me and many of my classmates, school was the center of our lives. We lived, at least for a time, the values embodied there, and wore its symbol with reverence. Now, it seems, the peer group is the defining element and the school is merely the site where individuals can find others of their kind, Where I read magazines called Sursum Corda and Catholic Miss, today’s girls read Sassy and Self. The ring investiture ceremony is gone, and in its place is the sales event, where the “Design-A-Side” options will enable each one to capture a moment and a mood to last forever.