Words of Wisdom from the Class of 2012
Graduates Enter Tough Economic Times, but with Unprecedented Tools

June 28th, 2012
by Robert Armstrong

[private] June is commencement time in the United States, when high schools and universities confer diplomas and send their graduates out into the world. I just attended my son Michael’s graduation from Yorktown High School in Arlington, Virginia, across the Potomac River from Washington.

Commencements are typically noted for pithy speeches about life’s transitions and what graduates should expect of the future, as well as wearing funny hats, pranks, batting beach balls (sometimes inflated condoms) around to pass the time while hundreds of names are read, then partying until dawn after it’s over. I normally tune the speeches out. I can scarcely remember those at my own graduations. I remember one at my high-school commencement dwelled ad nauseam on Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. I also recall then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright gave a full-throated defense of interventionism that delighted my Republican father when I got my second masters degree. The rest were all completely forgettable. But there were snippets from the Yorktown commencement that grabbed my attention and made me want to share them with my readers.

Firstly, the lead-off student speaker, in a speech that otherwise had way too much Tolkien for my taste, made an interesting analogy about crabs. “That’s good,” I thought to myself, “Bay Islanders ought to be able to relate to crabs.” He said that if you put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, there’s no need to put a lid on it, because if any crab tries to climb out, the others will pull it back down. Likewise, he said, those in our society who think differently and try to go against the grain are frequently held back by their contemporaries. “Let’s not be like crabs,” he said. So I thought, “Yeah, fellow Bay Islanders, let’s not be crabs; let’s be like that other marine species that when tossed in a bucket work together to lift each other out.” Except I couldn’t think of one. I invite suggestions.

Other student speakers pointed out that the Class of 2012 attended high-school during probably the worst four years for the US and global economies since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Fortunately, most graduates from Yorktown, located in an area that is home to many professional people who work in the nation’s capital, go on to college so won’t have to face the currently abysmal job market for another four years or so. But not all this year’s graduates are so fortunate, least of all those in Honduras.

Still other speakers referred to some of the world-changing events that occurred during their high-school years, such as the tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the end of US military intervention in Iraq, the election of the first African-American US President and … Kim Kardashian’s divorce (that one was meant in jest, I hope).

Another thing that struck me, after listening to my graduate son try to explain to my mother how he had built his own computer (and why), was that the Class of 2012 is the first to have grown up entirely in the internet age, which Time Magazine declared as beginning in 1994. I first got online in 1995 when I lived in Peru (and Michael was barely walking) and felt like a real pioneer because the fledgling service provider assigned me the username “Lima001.” Today’s graduates cannot imagine a world without the internet. They can barely imagine it without hand-held phone/computer/music players that speak to them and think for them. They invented a new condensed language for text messaging and revolutionized the way humans interact for everything from politics to romance. I haven’t decided yet whether all this is good or bad. But sometimes I wish it had all been around when I was in high school and was afraid to speak to girls (I’m better at texting, which is why I now have a magazine with a website and Facebook page).

Still, with all due regard to the Class of 2012, I have to say that my all-time favorite commencement speech was delivered by Theodore Seuss Geisel, better known to the world as Dr. Seuss, at Lake Forest College in Illinois in 1977, when the only people on the internet were NASA scientists and only geeks had their own computers. Geisel was considered an unorthodox choice (schools normally opt for political elder statesmen and deep-thinkers), except that his books had taught most of those graduates – in fact generations of English-speakers around the world – to read and armed generations of parents with an arsenal of addictive bedtime stories. My oldest son never tired of reading (or rather having me read to him) the Foot Book or Green Eggs and Ham.

Anyway, Geisel, rather than follow the pattern of putting the audience to sleep with a string of platitudes, recited a 91-word verse he had composed for the occasion in the style of his iconic children’s books. It was called My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers. The key, so it goes, is to “swallow what’s solid” but “spit out the air.”

From that, Geisel masterfully segues:

“As you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.”

Substitute “empanadas” for “popovers” and I think there’s a message there we Bay Islanders can all take home. [/private]

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