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The Tradition of Prize Day at St. Mark’s School

In late June, a long-standing School tradition will once again take place: the celebration of Prize Day Weekend. As the calendar has turned to the new year, and spring will be upon us before we know it, we thought you would enjoy knowing a bit of history about this tradition as well as knowing relevant details about this year’s series of events.

Yes, it’s called “Prize Day”, not “graduation” nor “commencement”—although both those concepts are fully part of the St. Mark’s Prize Day experience. Our Prize Day is much more than simply a graduation of seniors or a commencement of new alumni out into the real world. Rather, it is a sequence of traditional events, all evocative of the School’s rich and storied past.

There was an end-of-year event at the conclusion of the very first year of St. Mark’s operation, in June of 1866. This event was more of a commencement than a graduation, as college was a rare destination for St. Markers in those early days. It took place within the framework of a church ceremony: a Baccalaureate Service, a custom originating in 15th century English universities. Only five years later, in June of 1870, did the ceremony expand to include the awarding of “prizes”. The earliest of these were given for excellence in Latin and Greek, along with the School’s highest honor:  the Founder’s Medal. Thus it became “Prize Day”—another term with medieval English roots—and so it has been, both retroactively and ever since.

For more than a century, prize Day took place in June. Over the last couple of decades, it has been held on Memorial Day, but with the introduction of the School’s innovative Lion Term program, St. Mark’s is now back on its traditionally historic schedule.

Prize Day Weekend is actually five days long, beginning on a Tuesday with the Prize Day rehearsal and an early opportunity to sign yearbooks and share memories. On Wednesday evening, the annual Sixth Form Clambake is held on the main Quad. With various alumni and members of the School’s Advancement office as servers and waiters, the Clambake welcomes Sixth Formers into the ranks of the St. Mark’s Alumni Association. One of its most popular features consists of “future predictions” written down by each soon-to-be graduating senior and sealed in envelopes, to be opened at their 5th Reunion.

On Thursday evening the annual Sixth Form Dance will take place, just as it was a century ago. It is a lovely, memorable event for all involved.

Friday morning will feature the traditional Southborough Tea. This event dates back more than forty years, when it was part of a series of graduation events at the Southborough School for Girls, an institution coordinated with St. Mark’s in the years before coeducation. When St. Mark’s went co-ed in 1977, the majority of the first female students came from the Southborough School. So the tradition was continued, to support St. Mark’s women in maintaining their own identity and to honor the memory of a short-lived but much-loved school.

The annual end-of-year music concert will be held that same afternoon in the Putnam Family Arts Center’s Class of 1945 Hall, followed by the official spring and end-of-year Athletic Awards Ceremony, under the auspices of the St. Mark’s Athletic Association, in which teams and individual athletes are recognized and honored for their achievements.

Following dinner on Friday, the annual Baccalaureate Service takes place in the School’s Belmont Chapel. This is the oldest St. Mark’s Prize Day Weekend tradition, and the focus is on Sixth Formers and their families. There are student readers, a Baccalaureate Address is given by a faculty speaker chosen by the senior class, and the choir takes part in the service as well. At the Baccalaureate, a collection is taken to benefit Brantwood Camp, a summer service opportunity for St. Markers to work with inner city youth that has been connected with the School since 1920.

Saturday is Prize Day itself, the emotional handshaking ceremony followed by the formal Prize Day exercises that morning: prizes awarded, diplomas presented, and speeches made. One of the most interesting and unique St. Mark’s Prize Day traditions is that of the Sixth Form Valedictorian. Unlike most schools, where the Valedictorian is the senior with the highest academic standing, at St. Mark’s the Sixth Formers elect one of their classmates to give the Valedictory address. This has been the custom at St. Mark’s since its earliest days, recognizing the original definition of “valedictorian” as one who delivers the closing or farewell address at a ceremony (a “valedictory”, from the Latin vale dicere, “to say farewell”), with no reference to specific academic standing requirements.

Prize Day Weekend, then, is a series of events held over a five day period epitomizing the breadth of the St. Mark’s experience and celebrating the Sixth Form class as it prepares to leave the School. The entire student body is on hand to cheer their accomplishments and to send them on their way.

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