The Merl Grove High saga: Lessons from an abandoned graduation ceremony

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

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In yesterday's edition of this newspaper we ran an unusual story about the pain and anguish that has festered for 35 years in the hearts and minds of scores of Merl Grove High School past students, over the cancellation of their 1983/84 graduation ceremonies.

So pervasive and enduring has been their grief that the principal and board of Merl Grove High agreed to stage, belatedly, the abandoned graduation ceremony on November 17, in the hope of appeasing the women who are still hurting from that action.

Quite apart from the clear demonstration of how deeply wounded persons can feel about a perceived wrong done against them, this story brings into sharp focus the issue of how schools mete out punishment, especially through collective action.

The students contend that because of the misbehaviour of a few, the then school administration cancelled their graduation ceremony, thereby causing the good to suffer for the bad. Regrettably, this approach is still taken in schools today.

It is true that students typically do not tell on each other, making it difficult to identify culprits, hence collective punishment. But if nothing else, the anguish carried for decades by the Merl Grove past students should tell us that that approach can no longer be routine. In effect it can be dangerous.

It also demonstrates that punishment should fit the crime. Over 200 girls had been looking forward to their graduation, a rite of passage, for five years. To have it yanked away on the eve of the event for something of which the majority of them were not guilty was – in hindsight – cruel and inconsiderate.

We are told that so painful was that action that many of those women cannot even bring themselves to say they attended Merl Grove and will have nothing to do with fund-raisers or other activities meant to benefit the school. Some have gone to their graves with their grief.

Ms Arlene Muirhead, a member of the Class of 1983, did not shun the school, in fact, she is now a member of the executive of the North Eastern America Chapter of the Merl Grove Past Students' Association. But she has borne the pain all these years.

Recalling the moment she learnt of the cancellation, she says: “There was a car parked under a tree…I leaned on the car and cried. I cried out of fear. I cried out of anger. I cried because I already missed my friends. I cried. My brain refused to process...this...this...THIS is how I was leaving high school. I was so broken-hearted.

“I was done with high school. This chapter was unceremoniously and brutally over. As quickly as the pity party started a wave of rage would follow…Five years of friendship, five years of sisterhood, just down the drain because of the inappropriate behaviour of a few.”

We do not share the view that these girls, now in womanhood, should have gotten over the hurt of 35 years ago and move on. That is easier said than done. We will only understand when we have walked in their shoes.

Congratulations to the current Merl Grove board and administration, led by Principal Dr Marjorie Fullerton, for agreeing to hold the belated graduation ceremony where others before them had flatly refused.

Happy graduation, women of Merl Grove!

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