There are few places where the contrast between Scotland and America is more pronounced than High School graduations.

My American friends will be appalled to hear that when I finished High School, the bell went and I simply walked home never to return. No speeches, no farewells, no party, no banquet, no graduation ceremony, no diploma, no nothing. Teachers said nothing. Principal said nothing. Even my parents said nothing. It was just like any other day at school – except you didn’t go back again.

I remember the great joy of taking my school uniform off for the last time. But that was about the limit of the “celebration.” I think the feeling was, “You’ve finished High School? So what! You’ve done nothing yet. Now you start to prove yourself.” You wouldn’t dare call it a “graduation.” That was reserved for finishing university.

Shocked Scots
My Scottish friends will probably be appalled to hear the American contrast. Two of my sons just “graduated,” one from a Christian school, and one from an online school.

The one who finished High School seems to have been graduating for weeks. There was a one-week trip to Washington D.C., a banquet, a school awards ceremony, a public graduation ceremony, a limo trip to a graduation meal (yes, another meal), a graduates’ day at an adventure camp, and then the uniquely American “Open House.” (More of that in a moment).

The graduation ceremony was quite a grand occasion: full gowns and caps, diplomas, stage presentation, three gifts, a choir, a commencement speech, a valedictorian speech, and numerous other speeches too.

Graduation 1

Open House
I’d never heard of an “Open House” before coming to America. For the benefit of my Scottish readers here’s a summary. Basically, you open your house for a specified 2-3 hours and invite all your school friends, family friends, neighbors, and anyone who’s special to you. (In our case, it was on Saturday and probably about 250 people turned up between 4-7pm).

The family puts together a couple of presentation boards with lots of pictures of the graduate from earliest years up to the present. Guests have a good laugh at the evident changes in both the kids and the parents! There’s a box for cards and gifts, which often produces a welcome cache of dollars for upcoming college tuition and expenses. Guests are then fed, watered, and cream-caked, and hang around chatting for anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours.

Life photos

We were blessed with a beautiful day and used a marquee to provide a bit of shelter in the 80 degree heat. It’s quite an operation; Shona’s probably been preparing for it for two solid weeks. Don’t know where I’ll get the energy for my last son’s graduation in 17 years time!

Open House

Proud Kids?
At this point, my Scottish friends have probably stopped breathing. Some will be shaking their heads: “They’re mad. Murray’s turned his back on Scottish common sense. He’s betrayed his culture. Celebrating High School graduation? With all that razzmatazz? Kids will think they actually achieved something. It will go to their heads…”

Honestly, I would have said that myself a few years ago. And yes, there are excesses; although Dutch Reformed people keep it pretty sane and sensible compared to some Americans.

However, I’m now a convert (or apostate, depending on your accent). I’ve been to a good number of “Open Houses” over the last few years: friends’ kids, kids in my congregation, etc., and I love them. There’s a wonderful community spirit as the church family gets together to rejoice in another child getting to a significant milestone in their lives, to encourage them to remember the Lord in their youth, and to serve Him with the rest of their lives.

Can it inflate their egos? Make them proud? Tempt them to think they’re something when they’ve still got a lot to prove? Yes, yes, and yes. But given the choice between being overly cynical or overly celebratory, being too Scottish or too American, I’m going to spend the rest of my days risking too much happiness.

Family Photo

  • Homeschool on the Croft

    I love it! And I say, Go For It! Yes, I’ve probably become too Americanised (haven’t resorted to using the ‘z’ yet …) in my thinking for my Scottish friends, but I say to ‘err’ on the side of possibly showing your kids too much appreciation/support/encouragement, rather than erring where our tendency errs. (and, btw, I don’t think this is *too much*)

    Congratulations to your two sons, David. We would have loved to have been part of their celebration, and with both Allan and Angus every blessing for the future.

    PS. *YOU* won’t need the energy in 17 years’ time …. Shona will :p

    • David Murray

      Thanks Ann. I think you must have an American gene in there somewhere. I’ll pass on your good wishes to the boys.

  • Steven Birn

    My high school graduation was more like yours. I graduated a semester early. The bell rang, I went home. I could have gone to graduation and participated in all the pomposity but it was six months later and life had moved on. I tend to take the Scottish view of this subject. High school graduation doesn’t mean anything yet it’s treated like a monumental event. The only thing we treat as absurdly as high school graduations are weddings. You my friend have set yourself up for two massive American weddings for your girls. :)

    • David Murray

      Steve, we try to do American events on Scottish budgets! That includes weddings – I hope :)

  • Stephen

    Great, and well done the fruit of hard work are worthy of celebration! Our own daughter received a Dux award at her High School in the Scottish Borders, and is off to do Medicine at Edinburgh Uni. But there is a flip side I think, certainly from a Scottish/British cultural perspective, (we ourselves are of Hungarian descent. so I don’t speak for any of the clans!) While we had a presentation, prize giving and finally a prom ball, in talking to others comments were made about ‘yet another American import’, OK it’s just a meal and a dance and there’s no need to go off the deep end about it, But there are folk who feel both pressurized socially and financially to participate, it even happens locally with the June Beltane festival, I fear the day if our youngest gets chosen! There is poverty in the Borders but also a lot of pushy Middle Class sorts only to ready to parade their kids as trophies and spend phenomenal amounts of cash in the process. Obviously I’m not talking necessarily of a Church or Christian context here but some of us groan at what next import is going to float over to our shores, I don’t know if the cries of “What! How much?” carry across the pond to your shores.

    • David Murray

      Congratulations to your daughter Stephen. Great achievement. Yes, sometimes there is excessive expenditure on these celebratory occasions. I’ll try to hold back the bad exports from here, but I’d like a few good things to get over to Scotland too! BTW, I spent a year in Hungary in the late 1980′s. Loved it.

  • jeanette deblaay

    Great blog/topic. David! I agree some folks go overboard on the partying. However, when I think back over the past year or two and remember the boy who made the winning basket and then dropped to the floor and died – the girl who lost the fight to cancer – the hockey player that went to sleep and never woke up – and let’s not forget the lives lost in car accidents – these parents will never get to experience the celebration of their children’s graduation – or any other milestone in their lives. Let’s be thankful for what we have been given and if it means an opportunity to get together and encourage the youth – than by all means bring on the sandwiches and cake and photos!

    • David Murray

      Yes, Jeanette, that puts things in a good perspective.

  • Flora Compton

    Congratulations to your boys! What a lovely family.

    They certainly went to the other extreme in the Highlands of Scotland. “Pride” seemed to be the greatest sin so if one did well, one had to be deflated. I’ll never forget coming home to tell my parents that I had passed for the “A” stream in the “Qualifying Exam” expecting praise and pride but the response was very negative. It was the same with prizes in the ” Welfare of Youth ” exams – always the “put-down’ comments in case one became proud.

    In North America, the tendency is to go in the other direction so everyone has to be commended whether they do well or not.

    It’s so hard to strike the right balance!

    • David Murray

      Good example of the Scottish way, Flora. I think people sometimes take the truth of total depravity to the extreme of nothing good in anyone, ever.

  • se7en

    Lovely to see your family and what a special day to remember… Congrats to your guys… finishing school is a big deal and a fine excuse for a family celebration!!!

    • David Murray

      Thanks, we enjoyed it immensely.

  • Ronda

    So I’m curious how the high school graduation rate compares between the two places. As far back as I remember, high school graduation has been celebrated pretty much the same in America. I happen to think that it’s much less of an accomplishment than it used to be, but that’s beside the point, I guess. I wonder if making it a big deal encourages more kids to hang in there and finish it? Or if it makes any difference at all?

    • David Murray

      I think the consequences of not finishing school are more damaging in the USA. In the UK, you can leave High School one or two years before the normal six years and still have some qualifications/certificates.

  • Irene

    I’m curious, since “the feeling was, “You’ve finished High School? So what! You’ve
    done nothing yet. Now you start to prove yourself,” is it customary to have a big celebration when graduating from university in Scotland? Having graduated from a Christian highschool in New Jersey and having siblings who graduated in Ontario, I think their graduation celebrations are somewhere more in the middle. There was the one-week trip, banquet, and public graduation ceremony but no school awards ceremony, grad meal (with a limo trip), or graduates day at an adventure camp. We had our graduation parties with classmates, friends and family but I sure didn’t have 250 ppl coming through! :) We also didn’t hire a professional photographer to snap grad photos of us in various locations and outfits – I think that may be unique to Michigan! Congrats to your sons!

  • Karen Reyburn

    In Scotland, a lot of this happens when someone turns 21. It’s a big deal. There are parties – lots of them. Gifts – big ones. Even ‘open house’ style parties. So, maybe it’s just a matter of timing. :)