As an underclassman I had little contact with seniors, but I could always feel the end-of-the-year excitement when graduation rolled around. The excitement was always coupled with moans and groans about all the senior stuff they had to buy: announcements and pictures, t-shirts, the prom, the all-night party, the yearbook, glow-in-the-dark boxer shorts with one's graduation year stenciled on, and, most frustrating, flimsy maroon graduation gowns, complete with cap and tassel.
The gowns are made by Jostens Inc., which for years has sold graduation materials not only to my school, Franklin, but to seniors in thousands of high schools and colleges around the country. Each year, an editorial would run in the school newspaper complaining how Jostens had a monopoly at Franklin - but no one ever did anything about it.
This year started out no differently, except for the existence of the Student Union, created last year by a small group of student activists and sympathizers. The Student Union's mission is to provide a forum for education and activism based around school-related issues, foster communication at all levels of the school, and create a supportive organization through which youth can take on leadership roles and see themselves as part of a much larger struggle.
Early in the year, the school newspaper printed an article criticizing Jostens' monopoly on providing graduation gowns. Student Union members threw around a few ideas, but nothing serious. Then, in early October, word got out about the senior class photo shoot we were all supposed to attend on Wednesday morning. Leela Yellesetty, my close friend and one of the main organizers of the Student Union, and I stopped for coffee and showed up just in time to add our faces to the blurry yearbook photo.
After the photo we were told to stay in our seats for a "presentation" by our school's Jostens' representative, Dan J. Peters. For the next half hour we were subjected to a slide show of all the Jostens products that would make our senior year in high school meaningful. In the context of the presentation it became apparent that our experiences, memories, and relationships were not important, and that the only way to make our four years of high school really count was to buy a bunch of junk. The last slides showed happy, smiling seniors in maroon gowns launching caps into the air, and we were reminded that if we bought nothing else, we must have a gown in order to graduate!