I'm giving you some background information in quick little bursts here, to set the stage for my story. Once I get you kind of caught up, I'll slow down and start telling you the tale almost as though I were blogging about what's going on now, in little weekly updates. Like "The News From Lake Wobegon," except we had no lake, and I doubt I'll be as funny as Garrison Keilor.
I'm going to spare you most of the detail I learned in those first few days--it will come out later as we move along--but I want to tell you about the assembly. It will give you a taste of what the school was about, how we did things.
As you may have guessed, the assembly did not fall on Brigid's Day by accident. Much of the school year was organized around the eight Sabbats familiar to Wiccan readers, though our observances were not necessarily Wiccan (individual students and staff did as they liked, of course). The assembly both began and ended the school year, and served as both a welcome and a graduation ceremony, the day of a year and a day.
What I remember first was that the room of the ceremony--a high-ceilinged chapel or auditorium--was quite cold. The big room with big windows was very hard to heat. The energy budget of the school was always, by design, very low, so in February they only used enough heat to take the chill off. I don't think it was above fifty degrees when we first filed in--I could see my breath in the candle-light--but in my wool cape and winter-weight clothes I was comfortable enough, and it got warmer from body heat and candle light as the evening progressed.
The candles--the whole room was lit only by candles, large tapers set in holders on the walls, torch style, every few feet, plus a taper set in a four-foot tall holder at the end of each of the eight rows of chairs, and more on the stage, where there were two rows of folding chairs and a lectern. There was enough light for us to see each other and to move around, but the ceiling of the room was entirely lost in the gloom; it could have been a million miles up. Once we were seated, someone struck a bell, once, and a line of people processed in, cloaked in brown, and carrying unlit candles.
The bell struck evenly, over and over, and they walked in, until I began to feel slightly odd, between the dim light and the repeating bell, like my mind was stretching somehow. The procession divided into two groups of eight each, and moved up on either side of the audience until person stood at the ends of each of the eight rows of seats. The bell silenced, abruptly. I had an end seat, and I looked up to see a woman, her face neutral and shadowed weirdly, but pretty enough. She was a small woman, with fine bones, maybe forty years old. She wore a green ring on the ring finger of her right hand. I copied the students on the ends of the other rows and used the taper beside me to light her candle. She nodded to me, gravely, and she and the others processed up to the stage and took their seats; ten in the back row, six in front--three seats remained empty. They lowered their hoods, but in the candlelight I could barely see their faces.
The ceremony that followed introduced us to the school and graduated first some fifteen people from the undergraduate program I'd just joined, then three Master's level students. The bachelors emerged one by one from the wings of the stage, knelt before the tall man who seemed to be acting as officiant. Then each stood and the man removed the student's black cape--there were some words repeated, a kind of small rite, and the graduate said something to us, like thanks, or I love you all, or some small speech. What was under the black cloak varied--a white suit, an academic robe, a work uniform of some kind, doctor's scrubs. My favorite was the naked guy--he got a laugh, but nobody seemed to mind. After degree conferral, they all processed down the center aisle and out the door. I tried to picture myself crossing the stage, but I could only imagine it in the third person. I couldn't imagine being the person on the stage.
The ritual for the Masters was different. They wore brown, like the faculty, and they did not receive diplomas. Instead, each received a ring from one of the faculty--his or her adviser, I assumed, both rightly and wrongly. The school's Master's program didn't correspond to the graduate programs at other schools--it didn't result in a degree, for example, and until I stopped comparing it in my mind to ordinary graduate programs I didn't really understand it. The first of the three pairs of teacher and students clearly followed a set script in the giving of the ring, but the other two improvised. What all three had in common was that the student asked for the ring, and the Master held it out on his or her palm for the student to take, rather than putting it on the student's finger. The graduate put the ring on his own finger.
The third pair was interesting. The Master in question was a slight, mostly bald man with an intense but not unpleasant manner. He spoke first.
"How do you come?" he asked.
"With empty hands," replied his student, showing us his hands. They were empty, and ringless.
"What do you come for?" asked the Master.
"I come for my Mastery," was the reply.
"Which hand holds your Mastery?" asked the teacher, holding up his hands. The ring glinted in the candle light.
"This hand holds my Mastery," was the answer, as the younger man held up his hands again, the ring glinting now in his hand. The old Master's hands were empty. We laughed, astounded, though the trick would have looked more dramatic in better light. Slight-of-hand, ofourse. Both men were stage magicians, I later learned. Teacher and pupil, they grinned over their trick and embraced.
The three graduates went to sit on the stage in the empty chairs, mingled into the Master's Group just as we newbies had been mingled in among the students. There was a final song, a bell, and the ceremony was over. We all just got up, there was no reverse procession.
We all went to the back of the room, where tables were set up with food, which I desperately needed. I hadn't eaten since breakfast and it was after eight o'clock in the evening. The graduates ate with us and mingled, though I noticed none were naked. I guess the nudist had gotten cold. We were all a little chilly by that time, but there was hot chocolate, hot mulled cider (hard, not sweet), and herbal tea to drink, and that helped. There were no disposable cups, though. Instead, everyone unclipped tin cups from their belts and drank from those. I didn't know what I was supposed to drink from until someone showed me the box of cups and helped me find the one with my name on it. What a prosaic, but genuine welcome, to make sure each of us had our own cup--I was really touched. The food was unusual--bowls of nuts and raisins, sliced raw root vegetables and home-made corn tortilla chips for dipping in salsa or sour cream, dried apples, dilly beans...nothing that couldn't be made locally in New England in the winter. There were no disposable plates, either. People ate from the serving bowls or from handkerchiefs. They gave me my own handkerchief, too.
Eventually we went to our dorms--the first time I'd been to mine, actually--and there was more food, and quite a lot of hard cider, and by the time I finally fell into my new bed it was past one in the morning and I had twenty-five new friends. I couldn't remember any of their names, but I had a good feeling that maybe this whole strange thing was going to work.