Yes, kids, there is life after high school
Sunday, June 3, 1979; 12:26 PM
By Carl Bernstein; Carl Bernstein, of the famous Woodward and Bernstein, graduated in 1961 from Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring - barely. He became a reporter at 19 and joined The Washington Post in 1966. After his fame in the Watergate epic, his old high school invited him back for the honored role of commencement speaker in 1977. His speech was enthusiastically received by students and parents, but an assistant principal complained afterward: "I knew we shouldn't have invited you. I looked up your record and said, 'We should have gotten Connie Chung!'"
CORRECTION: The graduation speech by Carl Bernstein, published in last Sunday's Outlook section, was delivered at Montgomery Blair High School in 1976, not 1977 as reported.
THE ULTIMATE revenge in this life, I think, is to come back to your high school as its commencement speaker. Imagine. Me. Not the president of my class, not the former chairman of the Latin Scrabble Club, not the head of the Keyettes (I think it was Nancy Immler, who would never go out with me). Not Goldie Hawn, with whom I once road to the Hot Shoppe after the Bethesda-Chevy Chase game in the back seat of Pete Oldheiser's chopped-and-lower Buick. Not Bob Windsor, the football player. But me, from the very bottom of my class.
So it would be presumptous of me to preach at you from the usual list of topics for graduation speeches - patriotism, national service, leadership, these-are-the-best-years-of-your-life, etcetera. I'd like to share with you some of my feelings about Montgomery Blair, about high school, about the educational process in this county, and about the "real world" that is something quite apart from what most teachers and parents would have you believe.
I think the best way to do this is to tell you about my own stay at Blair now that - after some 15 years - I seem to have overcome the pain.
My own graduation from Blair is a memory so vivid that I continue to have nightmares about it. I was never able to send out invitations and those little white cards with your name engraved in script because Mr. Adelman, with good reason, had refused to pass me in chemistry. And I was also flunking gym. The explanation had less to do with my scores on tests or physical dexterity than with the fact that I wasn't in class very often. In those days we had a free fourth period to work on the school paper, Silver Chips, of which I was circulation and exchange manager. That free period would be spent at Jim Myers's recreation center on into the fifth and sixth, which was the same time I was supposed to be in gym and chmeistry classes.
I was also working evenings at the time - I started as a copyboy at the Evening Star in my junior year - and working for a newpaper seemed to me a lot more interesting than doing homework at night.
So when it came time to order caps and gowns in 1961, Mr. Shaw, then the principal of Blair, told me not to bother. There followed some intense lobbying by me and my parents. And there was a big discussion among members of the faculty, who finally reached a decision to get me out of Blair rather than put up with me for another year. The night before graduation, Mr. Shaw called my parents with news of this dispensation; the Bernstein family escaped disgrace, at least for a little while.
Then came the University of Maryland, which despite my hopeless grades, accepted me on probation because I scored reasonably well on the essay exam - the major part of Maryland's entry test in that era. Essay exams, I had learned at Blair, required no knowledge whatsoever, only a rudimentary ability to string together sentences in some sort of coherent fashion. And much to the amazement of my family, my friends with a better-than-decent average.
That didn't last for long, however. I started working at the paper five days a week, stopped showing up for classes unless there was an exam and flunked out the next semester. It went on like that for a couple of years - readmitted on probation, middling grades, up and down - and then came the final straw. The university suspended me for having too many parking tickets. I never went back.
I concentrated on my work at the Star and became a reporter. I started to find a satisfaction in my life that had been lacking at school. And tell you this not to recommend that anybody here follow the same course or to extol the virtues of starting at the bottom but to make a slight different point - and it's the only thing I want to pass on to you today:
Your life isn't over if you're not at the top of this class. You've been graded and you've been tested and you've been ranked and I'm here to tell that it really doesn't mean a thing. The die isn't cast yet, the final scores aren't in. And that goes for the top of the class, too. The fact is that easy passage through Blair, through of success are somehow permanently greased.
One of my most intense memories is of my 10th reunion of the Class of '61. For reasons that sociologists and educators and psychiatrists could spend lifetimes analyzing, what happened to that class contradicts all the old myths about success in high school. A disproportionate number of those judged in our yearbooks and in the hallways of Blair as "most likely to succeed" seemed to have adjusting to college, to professional life, to personal relationships. And, to generalize again, many of those who had the roughest time at Blair - the kids regarded as troublemakers by the faculty, the students with obvious difficulties of social adjustment, the ones who often seemed so aimless - a disproportionate number of them seemed to have moved on in their lives to real satisfaction - professionally, educationally, emotionally.
Which brings me finally to the idea rattling around my head since I first received your invitation to speak. Quite simply: The real world is a lot more tolerant, a lot more interesting, a lot more fun, a lot more sensible really than the cocoon that is high school. Wherever you stand in this class, you've gotten through the worst part - high school - and you deserve to feel really good about that. Now come the opportunities, whether you're headed for university, a job, the military, marriage. Now you get to be your own person, not what your teachers want you to be, not what your parents expect you to be.
At last you're not going to be compelled by others to do anything. And that really is what that piece of paper - that diploma - is all about. It's a ticket - out of this place and into life.
I think that the most acute observation I've ever heard about high school was made by Mike Nichols, the producer-director. He was 16 when he was admitted to the University of Chiacago, and he started working with Elaine May about the same time and got his start in the theater. And he said in an interview:
"It was the first time I realized that life wasn't frozen in that high school pattern forever. You know, in high school you think, "Mike Tenzer can beat me up and I can beat up Dave Helpern. And Lenore Lichtenstein will go out with me and Laura Firestein will never! And life will be like this forever.'"
As for Nichols found out, life won't be like high school. Enjoy it.