Bryn Mawr School officials are taking to heart a warning from a formerheadmistress about the possible perils of holding graduation outdoors nextspring on the wooded, 26-acre North Baltimore campus.
The warning came in a June 1970 letter found this year in school files andwritten by Diane Howell. In her letter - addressed: "To Whom It May Concern inJune 1987" - Howell described how a month earlier the "creatures emerged inearnest" just days before graduation, making an outdoor ceremony impossiblebecause of the din.
The creatures in question were cicadas, irksome insects that emerge fromthe ground every 17 years to mate and lay their eggs, and in doing so, wreakhavoc on trees and shrubs and make an incessant, high-pitched noise thatdrowns out nearly every other sound - including graduation speakers.
The cicadas are scheduled to make their next appearance in Maryland in thespring. And that's raised concerns among administrators at Bryn Mawr and otherprivate schools in the Baltimore area, who are thinking about where to holdgraduation next year.
In 1987, Bryn Mawr administrators heeded Howell's advice and moved theceremony into the KVB gymnasium. And next year?
"We don't move from that garden lightly," said Nancy Sherman, director ofcommunications at Bryn Mawr. "It would be an extraordinary compromise to holdit indoors."
The school has to decide soon. If graduation is not held outdoors, it mayhave to be moved off campus.
But if the school decides to follow tradition and award diplomas June 8 inthe Gordon Garden, the Class of 2004 will be competing with millions ofcacophonous cicadas.
Other private schools are delaying a decision because they have largerindoor facilities that can handle the ceremony.
In 1987, graduation at Boys' Latin in North Baltimore also was moved insidebecause of the cicadas, said Leslie Heubeck, the school's director of publicrelations.
Since the insects last appeared, several major construction projects havebeen completed at Boys' Latin. Because so much ground has been disturbed, theschool may be forced to deal with fewer insects next spring.
"We have the luxury of waiting because our Gelston Athletic Center is largeenough to accommodate our commencement," Heubeck said.
Unique to East Coast
The insects have long been called locusts, but they are periodical cicadas,said Gaye Williams, an entomologist with the state Department of Agriculture.After they crawl out of the ground, they fly to nearby trees and bushes wherethe males start a droning mating song that lasts from dawn to dusk and thefemales deposit eggs.
"The cicadas are unique to the East Coast," she said. "They like the oldEastern deciduous trees," including oak, maple, hickory, apple and various nuttrees, but generally steer away from evergreens.
Williams stressed that the insects are not harmful, but they are very loud.
Mary Brady agrees. The retired archivist and teacher at St. Paul's Schoolfor Girls in Brooklandville said the cicadas make a "dreadful racket when theysing at the top of their lungs." She described the noise as a high-pitched,abrasive, metallic sound.
She isn't afraid of cicadas, but said they do spook a lot of people.
"They look like ghosts because they are milky white when they first emergeand then darken when they cling to the trees," she said.
The adult cicadas probably would be considered ugly, about 1 1/2 inches to2 inches long with a black body, red eyes and legs.
Brady remembers the St. Paul's outdoor graduation in 1987 - the last timethe 17-year cicadas appeared in the Baltimore area.
"It's fortunate that we had the outdoor graduation at all," she said. "Itwas a nuisance. The girls were squeamish, but they didn't squeal when thecicadas flew by or landed on their white dresses. We had more trouble withsome of the parents.
"It wasn't very comfortable, but we did manage," she said.
'How awful that was'
Charlotte Douglas was one of the parents attending graduation in 1987 atSt. Paul's. Now the school's director of admissions, Douglas said she wantedto see the graduation traditions continue.
"I remember a gentleman sitting in front of me with a cicada on his neckduring the graduation," she said. "I left it there because I was afraid itwould land in our row. I'll never forget how awful that was."
Howell, headmistress at Bryn Mawr from 1962 to 1973 who died this year,said in her letter that "survivors" of the 1953 outdoor graduation describedthe situation as "impossible: locusts crawled up legs, flew down dress necks,and made such a din that the speakers could not be heard."
Williams, the entomologist, said the insects are just part of theenvironment. Their only enemies are humans and deforestation.
Although they only live for six to eight weeks, the timing of their arrivalcouldn't be worse. Williams suggested that anyone planning an outdoor event inMay or June would be well advised to rent a tent - one with sides on it.