Merging equality with tradition proves difficult for schools

I saw on the news that Morse High School in Bath, Maine is in the midst of a heated debate concerning their recent decision to have all students — male and female — wear blue gowns at this year’s graduation ceremony. Traditionally, male students have marched in blue gowns and female students in white gowns. Morse announced a few weeks ago that in an effort to be more gender inclusive, all students would be marching in blue.

Many members of the Bath community were offended by the school’s decision. The grandmother of a female student who will be marching said that her disappointment and disapproval had nothing to do with gender, but rather with upholding tradition. She said that there has always been a powerful beauty in the contrast between blue and white gowns in Morse’s graduation ceremony and in seeing graduates honor that tradition.

Students also had plenty to say about the school’s decision — and their voices were ultimately heard when the school soon after decided to let students choose what color gown they’d like to march in. The school made the right decision.

Apparently this is a debate that other high schools in Maine have been having. Waterville High School decided this year to have all graduating seniors wear purple gowns in their ceremony. A Morse high school student said that it didn’t seem fair for an entire student body to be affected by one small group’s disagreement — in this case, the small group being transgender students and others who are made uncomfortable by the division of gown color based on gender.

This is where the line blurs for me. It’s sad to see traditions slip away, especially in small towns across Maine where they mean so much to families and communities and to Maine’s sense of place, character, history and heritage. Maine certainly is a special place to live. Often it can feel as if we are being simultaneously left behind and swallowed up by the quickly changing and much larger world that exists outside of our unique state.

But I also believe very strongly in fairness and equality. I believe in humanity. I don’t like when someone hurts because someone else believes that he or she knows better. There’s a part of me that thinks it’s nice to picture all those students marching together in purple at Waterville High School this spring. I like to think that no student has to worry about sticking out, looking different, being uncomfortable or being made to pick “A” or “B” when maybe they identify as “H” or as “X.” There’s a nice sense of unity in that image.

I graduated from Boothbay Region High School in 2004. Boothbay is about as small and traditional as Maine towns get. We are, in fact, the only high school left in the entire country to still participate in the very traditional Grand March ceremony that occurs in the evening following graduation. It’s a tradition that is more than a hundred years old. Boys wear white suit jackets and black pants, and girls wear white, floor-length ball gowns. Graduates are paired up by height — men with women — and for the entire week preceding graduation, they practice an intricate marching dance in the high school gymnasium. On the night of the Grand March, graduates parade to the delight of the community under strings of blue and gold balloons.

It’s magical to see. As someone who participated in the Grand March 12 years ago, it meant a lot to be part of such an honored tradition. Both of my parents marched in the Grand March when they graduated in 1972 and ’73. My brother marched the year before I did. I know what that Bath grandmother meant when she said that there is something stunningly beautiful about the blue and white gowns at Morse’s traditional graduation ceremony. Because the colors mean more than gender. The colors also stand for tradition and for respect of the past.

So I’m torn. I don’t know how I feel about the colored gown controversy that’s sweeping the state. It’s sad to see traditions end, but it’s also sad to know those traditions are hurting students. I can say with conviction that respect and choice these days are pivotal. It’s unfortunately a very delicate line to walk between tradition and political correctness, and it’s one that I fear is not going to get any easier to navigate.

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