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Time Honored and Revered: Private School Traditions

By Anne Levin

A cluster of young women in semi-formal dresses is standing in the back of a candlelit auditorium at Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. Teetering a bit on their high heels, they whisper quietly while awaiting their turn to take part in an annual tradition known as the Junior Ring Ceremony.

Dating back to the 1970s, this rite of passage involves a procession down an aisle lined with smiling alumnae of the Princeton girls’ school, some of whom are their mothers and older sisters. Once they reach the front of the auditorium known as Cor Unum (Latin for “one heart”), they are handed a lit candle and a school ring by a member of the senior class.

According to tradition, the girls then have to turn their ring 100 times plus the number of their class, plus one. If they don’t? “You may become a nun,” says Stuart spokesperson Risa Engel, attributing the quote to former head of school Sister Fran de la Chappelle.

The ring ceremony is just one of the rituals held dear by students at Stuart and other area private schools. Some are lighthearted and others are solemn in nature. Most are taken seriously, according to representatives of these prestigious academies. You don’t mess with tradition.

“The ring ceremony is meant to be a symbol between the juniors and seniors. Each junior gets a ring from a senior, and it’s a link you remember forever,” says Alicia Fruscione Walker, a 1998 graduate, current Stuart parent, and coordinator of its alumnae office. “It’s such a special time, for the juniors but also for the alumnae who come back to take part. You never forget it.”

A few miles away at The Lawrenceville School, students know to avoid a bronze medallion known as the zodiac, embedded in the stairs leading down to the field house—until they’ve graduated, that is. “Stepping on that or another bronze tablet before you graduate will jinx the gods or show condescension,” says Blake Eldridge, Dean of Students and a 1996 graduate of the school. “You don’t want to show any hubris by walking on either of these seals.”

Another Lawrenceville tradition involves a statue in the rotunda of a building known as Pop Hall. Called Spinario, the statue is a young man pulling a thorn out of his foot. “It is the personification of diligence and perseverance,” Eldridge explains. “So the students, every time they walk past it, rub his toe on his good foot, to have a little bit of that power. It’s about the ability to suspend a temporary personal concern in pursuit of a larger virtue. I still do it. If you don’t acknowledge it, you are less likely to make it through the rigors of Lawrenceville.’

There is a secret group of do-gooders at The Peddie School in Hightstown. Known as the Society of 8, they perform random acts of kindness. Their name comes not from their number, but from the school’s proximity to Exit 8 of the New Jersey Turnpike. One former member told school spokesperson Wendi Patella, “There were no robes or secret handshakes, but you swore your allegiance to the society by placing your hand on a map of New Jersey.”

Peddie is believed to be the only high school in the country that owns a Heisman Trophy, won in 1937 by 1933 graduate Larry Kelley. Each winner gets two trophies, so Kelly donated one to his alma mater, where it sits under glass most of the time. But according to tradition, the trophy is taken out once a year, when Peddie plays football against longtime rival Blair Academy. Members of the team make sure to touch the trophy before the game, for good luck.

If Blair, which is in Blairstown, should happen to win that or any other football game, team members are sure to celebrate by “Ringing the Victory Bell.” The tradition was established in 1999 by the classes of 1949 and 1999, on the occasion of their 50th reunion and graduation, respectively. The bell is installed at the heart of the campus, in front of Hardwick Hall, with a plaque that reads, “When Blair’s athletes are victorious, ring forth. Always mute but for victory.”

There is a similar ritual at Morristown-Beard School in Morristown. After a big win by a varsity sports team, the players ring the bell housed in a tower on Burke Athletic Field. Another M-B tradition is the Senior Circle, a verdant piece of grassland in front of Beard Hall that is strictly seniors-only. And unless you are a member of that elite senior class, don’t bother walking in the front door of Beard Hall. No underclassmen allowed.

Pennington School counts 125 boarders among its 400-member student body. Dressed in their best, the boarding students are treated to a formal dinner every other Monday night. Tables are set with linen and the students sit with faculty members at these special, traditional meals. At the dinner held before the students go home for Thanksgiving, each table gets its own turkey.

Another Pennington tradition dates from the academy’s “sister” affiliation with the Kingswood School in Bath, England. In 1963, Kingswood’s headmaster visited Pennington and told students about its tradition of declaring surprise, one-day holidays. Pennington adopted the practice in his honor. First, it was a holiday announced at breakfast. Later, the day was scheduled on the school calendar. But in recent years, the surprise element has been restored and the day can pop up at any time, most often after a period of long and hard work.

Alumni of George School in Newtown, Pa. disagree on the genesis of Four Square, a game that has become a pivotal part of campus culture. Only a few decades old, the tradition is a competition that has no winners, losers, or score. “If a dispute arises, a dance-off is called; the best dancer as determined by the crowd wins,” says spokesperson Alyson Cittadino, the school’s Assistant Director of Communications and Marketing. “The game has no end. Players play until they are tired.”

Princeton’s Hun School has various traditions of different lineages. One of the newer rituals is known as Senior Pass-it-On Day, in which seniors gather in the spring for a photo, sporting gear representing the colleges to which they have been accepted. Each one writes a note to a rising senior, giving them tips and encouragement about the rigors of the college application process.

At Princeton Day School, the littlest members of the student body in pre-K, kindergarten and first grade have a custom of planting daffodil and tulip bulbs in the fall, and then watching them flower in the spring. Among the school’s other traditions is The Maypole Dance, an annual event since the founding of the all-girls Miss Fine’s School in 1899. It was the merger of Miss Fine’s and the all-boys Princeton Country Day School in 1965 that created what is now PDS.

“Postcards to the Library” is a beloved summer tradition at Pingry School in Short Hills. First launched in 2004, it invites students in kindergarten through grade five to send a picture postcard to the library for every book they read in the summer break. On the first day back at school, 10 postcards are randomly picked by the librarian from a giant wicker basket. The “winning” students are given gift cards to Barnes & Noble to help encourage their interest in reading. A newer tradition, just two years old, is “Taste of Pingry,” which acknowledges the multicultural student body and their families. At the most recent “Taste” event last May, more than 80 families shared dishes from across the globe—from Haitian beef patties to Papa à la Huancaina, a Peruvian potato appetizer.

Whether long-standing or only a few years old, each school has its own, established, sometimes quirky traditions. The idea is to connect students to their history and understand what makes them unique. “They are meaningful in the moment,” says Eldridge of The Lawrenceville School. “And when kids go off to college and later in life, they remember those moments. Everybody who has come through this school remembers and can talk to you about these traditions that are part of what make us who we are.”

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