This is the time of the year that we adults give so much unsolicited advice to our graduating high school seniors. Most of it comes in the form of platitudes -- all that nonsense about "leaving the nest" and "the world is your oyster" and, worst of all, "these have been the best years of your life." (If you believe that one, I urge you to seek therapy -- immediately!)
Well, Class of 2004, here's the truth of the matter: In a few years, your memories of high school will become highly selective. You will remain in contact with only a few classmates, yet some experiences will turn out to have been forever etched.
A few years back, I attended my 35th high school reunion -- cheap advice: don't attend any reunion before your 20th -- and there I ran into our former basketball team captain, who also played first on our golf team. I played second. Way back in 1956, we competed against Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. BCC was led by Dean Beman, the defending Maryland amateur champion who would go on to win the U.S. Amateur, the British Amateur and several PGA tour tournaments before he became commissioner of the PGA Tour. After just five holes, my partner, now a practicing attorney in Connecticut, was one under par -- and four down. On this tough country club course, Beman had started off birdie, par, birdie, eagle, birdie. After 35 years, Hank's first question to me that night was: "Bobby, do you remember the Beman match?" I savor that memory even today. It was a moment in time. We had a good laugh. A snapshot that recalls so many related memories. It provided an entree to the rediscovery of a friendship. You will all have a store of such memories.
Also along the way, if you have been lucky, you will have come across a few teachers who, you will discover, made a very big difference. As the years go by, your list will narrow but deepen. I can now count only two -- an English teacher from my eighth grade in Newport, R.I., and a senior year history teacher at Washington-Lee HS in Arlington, Va., who loved opera. Only two. Emulate these few teachers. Show your appreciation. Good teachers are gifted -- and a gift. They bring to their work a zest for their subjects, a concern for their students and an ability to knit the two together. They are to be treasured, yet seldom are.
But other than a few students and teachers? You will discover that high school was unique in only one respect: Aside from being drafted into the armed services or going to jail, your high school years are the last that you will be required to spend around so many people with whom you have so little in common, share so few interests and who, to put it bluntly, bore you to death so much. From now on, you can't blame boredom on those school boundaries that have defined your life for the past four years. Now it will come as a matter of personal choice.
You will find the antidote to boredom to be risk-taking. A few years back, Spokane's favorite poet, Carolyn Kiser, devoted an entire commencement address to just this theme. She brilliantly urged seniors at Eastern Washington University to find ways to fail. So experiment. Bump into a few walls. Fall on your face. That's how this country was built.
Trouble is, in all likelihood your high school will have sent you just the opposite message. Studies have shown that most high schools are more about order, rules, hierarchy, compliance and respect for authority than they are about knowledge, imagination and experimentation. Moreover, high schools, like most bureaucracies, are notoriously humorless, show little appreciation for irony and even less for a sense of absurdity -- yet one could make an argument that these qualities are of greater importance than all those trick questions on standardized tests that you spent so much time preparing to get right.
To no surprise, "school spirit" and "teamwork" are the dimwitted values that grow out of such an organizational culture. The less able or accomplished students buy into this nonsense and usually cry at graduation.
The more able make an even worse mistake: I worry when so many of our top high school graduates express such certitude about their chosen fields of study. Pressures to prepare for a job notwithstanding, young people -- please! -- your college experience needs to be about discovery, not affirmation. Education isn't job training. Try some appetizers before you order your meal.
The good news is that most of you haven't a clue. Students today change majors maybe three or four times. You will discover that the pathway that leads from education to career isn't linear. I had a college friend who majored in French literature and minored in piano performance. Along the way, he made certain that he took all the science courses required for medical school. He became a pathologist. He also continued to perform on the piano. You get my point.
Finally, and by far most crucially, I truly believe that your generation faces political, social, economic and scientific challenges not faced by any generation since that of the Depression and World War II. Time and space have evaporated during your young lifetimes. Demographics, the environment and natural resources are being altered at an exponential rate. When we say that the future is in your hands, this time we really mean it. Yours is the generation of destiny. Hopefully we have raised you well, because we need you to succeed. And that's the truly awesome truth facing you, the members of the class of 2004.