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Meanwhile in Oz: College class ring carries a special significance
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Wearing a class ring used to be a common practice among young people.

Earning a high school degree was a big thing in the first half of the last century.

That's because labor was needed on the farm.

Many children stopped going to school in late elementary school in order to work. A real benchmark was staying in school long enough for "eighth-grade graduation." In fact, many small school districts in Wisconsin continue to have a special ceremony for eighth-grade commencement.

If you look through class photos of high schools in the early 1900s, you'll see a pretty good sized group of girls with fewer boys.

The boys who made it through were not needed to immediately earn income working on a farm. Oftentimes a family's farm was far more important than the time spent to further an education.

Children were thrust into adult roles earlier, married sooner, had more children quickly and the cycle continued until World War II.

The mechanization that was improved by technology developed for World War II helped eliminate some farm jobs. The economy was booming. Exporting food became an important part of the economy and crop focus changed.

More students stayed in school and earning a high school diploma became a sign of progress. Parents, who themselves had been unable to continue with their educations, took pride in sending their children through high school. And earning a diploma could be shown by wearing a class ring.

Of course, the rings were expensive. So was the education. A family could expect to pay $30 or more for a gold ring with an onyx stone in the 1950s and 1960s for their graduate. If the student received the ring before graduation, tradition dictated it was worn with the name of the school on the top facing the student. After graduation, the ring was switched so that those facing the student could read the school. The ring is to be worn on the right hand's ring finger.

My father got a class ring from his mother in the early 1960s. It was a big deal. He wore it so much the ring showed noticeable wear before he stopped wearing it right around his marriage just a few years later.

When I was in high school I did not ask for a class ring. It was just one more expensive thing that my family could not afford. Many of my classmates received them. I always thought they looked very small. And I noticed over time that fewer and fewer of my classmates wore them as school went on.

What I discovered in many instances is that the ring got lost. Teenagers are not able to keep track of many things - homework assignments, lists of chores, sunglasses and even their smart phones. A ring is easily lost.

Once a person leaves high school, the pounds come on and a ring no longer fits. Who wants to change the size?

As we moved into the 1980s, wearing a class ring after graduation became something that happened less and less. A Josten's representative told the Winona (Minnesota) Daily News back in 2012 that between the 1980s and early 2010s, wearing a class ring declined from 65 percent of students to 35 percent.

When I graduated from college back in 1990, I was the first member of my grandfather's family to earn a bachelor's degree.

Over time, to mark that milestone, I wore a class ring. I just had it resized. It's a simple thing, white gold, black onyx, the name of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. I've only come across a few other people who wear their rings after college. I haven't yet worn mine in Monroe because it has been out for sizing and a repair, which has taken months.

There are only a few companies that work on class rings. When you originally buy the ring, you have to go through your college's library to get approval to make the order, so they can prove you received the degree for which you are getting the ring.

My ring is a reminder of our family's success story. We were a bunch of German immigrants, who became Wisconsin lumberjacks and farmers. I'm part of the first generation to earn college degrees directly after high school. Many of my cousins have bachelor's degrees and some of my aunts and uncles went back to school to get associates or bachelor's equivalent degrees.

I bought my ring myself. It was one of three things I wanted after college graduation - a pair of leather engineer boots, a massive stereo and a class ring. I no longer have the boots or the stereo. I wore out the boots. The stereo fell out of fashion - along with my mullet and all of the Aqua Net it took to keep it in place. I sold the stereo about 10 years ago and it still is rocking the rec room of people up in Vernon County.

I've been notified that my class ring will soon return, freshly polished.

We all have things that mean something to us. The ring means something to me. Where tattoos have now become the way to mark special things in the lives of many people, I wear a ring.

I haven't yet gotten a tattoo, but my wife and I have looked at different designs and patterns. Maybe that will be part of one of our next lifetime adventures.

I wear a college ring on my finger where my great-uncle Ned had no finger. He lost part of his right-hand ring finger in a farm accident when he was only a child. That was a common occurrence on the farm.

Wearing a ring becomes second-nature and we don't think about it much. But when I reflect on my wedding ring and class ring, there's a lot to think about.

- Matt Johnson is publisher of the Monroe Times. His column is published Wednesdays.