Friday, May 28, 2010

Gazing into the Future... and Other Rites of Passage

High school graduation is often the first significant secular ritual in the lives of young Americans. There are other rituals in which we may participate earlier in life - we celebrate birthdays, observe family traditions, we participate in religious ceremonies and rites... but walking across the stage, reaching out to shake the Principal's hand while claiming one's diploma is a distinctly individual accomplishment... It's a moment we have earned - and an important rite of passage.

The term "Rite of Passage" was coined by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, and was the title of his 1909 book. He stated that passage rituals consist of three stages: Separation (from society), then Transformation, and finally - Return to society with New Status.

As I learn more about Chazy Central Rural School and it's traditions I have admired how they have managed to retain many of their traditions from the very early days of the school. There are numerous rituals CCRS students experience, either directly or as observers, over the course of their years at Chazy. In just a few weeks I hope to attend Class Day, which is a Rite of Passage for Juniors, and a very powerful ritual and Rite of Passage for graduating Seniors.

At The Alice we have a wonderful mercury glass gazing ball that has been in the collection since the 1920s. I think of rites of passage when I see the gazing ball in the first floor hall. For a number of years this object was used on Class Day to predict the future of graduating Seniors.

The story goes that William and Alice Miner's employee, John M. Maslowski, and another worker from Heart's Delight Farm would drive to The Alice T. Miner Museum, collect the gazing ball from the Director/Curator, drive around to CCRS (as Mr. Maslowski held the gazing ball gently in the back seat,) and deliver it to the auditorium stage - returning the object to the museum in the same careful way after the ceremony. For those of you who have not been to The Alice - walking with the object over to our neighboring school would have taken about the same amount of time - but was not considered a safe enough mode of delivery, I presume!

Mercury glass is not actually made with mercury, but is clear glass blown with a double wall and coated inside with a silvering formula inserted through the hole left by the punty rod (the rod attached to the glass while it is being blown.) The hole is then plugged and the object is complete!

This method of producing mercury glass was developed in Germany in the early 19th century and was used as an inexpensive type of silver substitute - one that would not tarnish. Many candlesticks, doorknobs, vases, sugar bowls, goblets, and gazing balls were produced using this method. One method of production did incorporate the use of mercury, but it was found to be too toxic and more expensive than the more popular lining.

Critics of mercury glass felt it looked too much like a mirror and not enough like silver - but proponents liked it for this very reason. And, any thief could tell when they were looking at inexpensive mercury glass, and not at silver!

These days Alice's mercury glass gazing ball tells no tales at CCRS of future conquests. It merely sits in a quiet corner of the hall until Christmas decorating time, when it often comes out to be graced by a garland and placed on a windowsill for maximum effect. Yet if one were to visit our museum and pause to gaze into it, oh the tales it might yield of both the past, and one's bright future!