It's one of the best of times -- when energy, elation and frenetic activity crest in that ritual of passage known as high school graduation. The world's realities--harsh for some, beckoning for others--are held at bay while the triumph of a youngster's first big achievement is savored. The rituals are myriad, but every graduation is a celebration in its own way, and every one is different.
The job of graduation speakers is to try to figure out what the graduates need to hear and then to say something the kids will remember. Three speakers who faced different kinds of audiences--a suburban high school and two District schools, one a large public school and the other, a small private school--tailored their speeches to fit the audiences.
Pragmatism marked the main student mood at the seven high school graduations at which Channel 7 anchorwoman Renee Poussaint spoke--Jeb Stuart in Falls Church, Osbourn Park High in Manassas, Eleanor Roosevelt High in Prince George's County, Gwynn Park Senior High in Brandywine, Wheaton High, Charles Woodward High and Sherwood High, all in Montgomery County, and Ribaut Junior High in the District.
Since student interests were mainly "concrete and job-oriented," Poussaint said, she wanted to make her speech a beacon that lit other directions as well.
"I did not want them to be content with the safe and secure, but to jump out and take risks, to experience different things in order to grow," said Poussaint.
She challenged the graduates to think beyond material goals, to think about what issues outside of themselves they felt important enough to take risks and fight for. "I wanted them to know if they don't do that, they are failing themselves and the rest of us because they are our future."
What I had to say to the 250 graduates of the District's Eastern High School was different because I knew this audience needed to hear something else. The Washington Convention Center was aglow with the powder-blue robes of the boys and white robes of the girls, but the atmosphere was tempered with the reality that more than 60 percent of them were headed for a competitive work force that includes some three million high school graduates looking for jobs, as well as the more than 13 million people who are also out of work.
I acknowledged these realities, but admonished them neither to give up nor surrender to their environment and to be patient because the climb for them was going to be harder than it is for those with more advantages. I cautioned them not to waste energy blaming their circumstances, but rather to rise above them and use the strength they already had gained.
These and many other students must learn to believe in themselves despite the uncertain times, to dig for strength in the deep reservoirs left by ancestors who wrote the books on survival and, finally, to measure their eventual success according to personal growth--not just status and salary.
At Georgetown Day School, speaker Frankie Pelzman's children had attended the school over a 20-year period and her youngest child was among the 60 graduates. In this instance, sentiment and love marked the graduation ceremony--a luxury that can come when the winds are less chilled than for the graduates of Eastern. At Georgetown Day School, every graduate was college-bound.
"I always felt the faculty and administrators knew who I was and knew who my kids were in a very special way. They knew the difference between kids, respected that, nurtured the good ones and put up with some of the negatives to give them all a sense of the importance of being individuals . . . ," she said.
Pelzman "didn't want to give a speech about the pain of life . . . . I felt I was speaking to close friends and could be personal and emotional. I was trying to say that . . . the things that endure are going to be there for them forever."
But Pelzman's closing lines captured a deeper sentiment and underlying emotion that spoke for us all--parents, relatives and friends--whether at Jeb Stuart, Eastern or Georgetown Day, because it transcended differences and inequities.
From a poem by Richard Wilbur, she read:
"I wish what I wished you before, but harder . . . ."