The Backstory: School's out for summer!

Alice Cooper once said that he wanted his song, "School's Out," to represent that very last moment of the last day at school. You remember the one. The last bell rings and everyone loses their mind.

Unless, of course, you work in the school system. Teachers (a.k.a. grown-ups) don't get that big moment of joy, that realization that you now have nearly three months to hang out, sleep in, and, well, not pay bills.

But we all remember that amazing sense of freedom. And there was nothing quite like the sense of release and relief that came with senior graduation. "School's out for summer. School's out forever..." was the battle cry for many an end-of-high-school celebration.

While Ann Arbor's earliest students might not have had Alice Cooper's anthem to celebrate the start of summer – nor been able to swim at Buhr Park Pool or hit the skate park- they still celebrated the arrival of graduation.

Ann Arbor's public school system began in 1856, with the opening of the Union School. In 1904 the school, then renamed Ann Arbor High School, burned down; the rebuilt school opened in 1906 at the corner of State and Huron Streets (what is now the Frieze Building). In 1956, a brand new Ann Arbor High School opened at the corner of Stadium and South Main Street. When Huron High School opened in 1967, the school was renamed Pioneer.

But what about the actual pioneers of Ann Arbor? What were their graduations like? How did they celebrate?

Ann Arbor High School's class of 1872 graduated with prayer and lots of lovely music. Interestingly, students were able to pick different courses to guide their studies. They chose from the classical course, the Latin course, the English course, the Scientific course, the English/French, English/German, German/French, English/Scientific, German or French courses. Beloved Professor Perry even came back and received a cane from his former students!

The June 22, 1887 issue of the Courier reported that classes were scheduled to be completed that day, and that seniors were enjoying themselves at Whitmore Lake. A month earlier, the seniors had "class day" at Whitmore Lake, wherein they held mock classes imitating the ones they had taken for the previous 16 years. To make the high school "show up well for commencement," electric lights were put up in some of the rooms.

In 1894, 86 students graduated from Ann Arbor High School. The Argus warned the graduates that while they might take a "roseate" view of the future, they would not find "everything just as they expected." Indeed, a man's shirt collar was sure to meltdown as he pulled the ragweed from himself and suffered blisters on his hands. A woman's hands were sure to be reddened with the "host dish-washer of post-graduation" life. That, advised the newspaper, is why this is called Commencement—because it is the beginning of real, practical life.

Despite these ominous warnings, the class of '94 still managed to have a nice celebration, decorating the graduation hall in class colors pink and blue. Speeches were made, diplomas handed out, and the orchestra played the "Coconut Dance." This dance got people standing up and swaying in a "rhythmic movement." Even some of the deacons got down!

Ann Arbor High School's class of 1898 celebrated graduation on July 1 of that year. The class colors, black and gold, adorned the stage where 59 students received their diplomas. School colors of corn and maroon festooned the rest of the hall. After an opening prayer, the high school orchestra performed. Principal Pattengill handed out the diplomas, and was followed by several class speakers who presented their essays on topics ranging from "Problems of Great Cities" to "The Romance of the Sea."

Decades later, Ann Arbor High School had moved to its new (and final) home. The first class graduated in 1956. The occasion was commemorated in the Ann Arbor News, and featured a picture of the graduating class along with one of a couple that got engaged immediately after the ceremony (mazel tov!). A graduate from the class of 1891 also attended the ceremonies.

Today's high school graduates face a radically different world from those in the 1800s, and even those in 1956. But the heady rush of commencement still rings in the air each June as students put on their caps and gowns, and bid farewell to the first chapter of their lives. The sentiments expressed in Alice Cooper's 1972 rocker rang true when he wrote it, probably would have been welcomed 80 years earlier, and still ring true today.

No more pencils
No more books
No more teacher's dirty looks

Congratulations, class of 2016! You know you've got class, you've got principles, and maybe, unlike Mr. Cooper, you can even think of a word that rhymes!*

Patti Smith is a freelance writer. Her first book, Images of America: Downtown Ann Arbor, was published by Arcadia Publishers. It is available on her website,, as well as local bookstores.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.