The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A blunt lesson in a Montgomery graduation speech

The 2022 Montgomery Blair High School graduation. (Courtesy of Paul Basken) (Paul Basken)
Placeholder while article actions load

At a classically beautiful outdoor graduation ceremony on a sun-baked morning, four years of hard work and great accomplishment at Maryland’s biggest public grade school drew to an end for 700-plus students of Montgomery Blair High.

And before they headed out, intentionally or not, they got hit with one last blunt lesson on what awaits them.

Blair, first of all, is a marvel for far more than its size. At a moment when so many of us are wondering if our democracy can survive its demographic and economic stresses, Blair takes a student population that’s three-quarters non-White and more than a third low-income and pulls them together in an imperfect-but-vital community of personal growth, respect for differences and determination to help out.

Its graduates this year included three young moms sitting with their babies. Another student got his diploma after losing both parents to the coronavirus. Blair’s principal, the beloved Renay Johnson, took pride in citing long lists of her students who worked with their teachers through tough family backgrounds to graduate and, in many cases, win some top academic honors.

Many of those students have also grown quite familiar with the harsh facts of the job market, having worked between their classes to help themselves and their families make ends meet. Many of their similarly cash-strapped teachers, on a graduation day of special demands but typical hours, began preparing the ceremony at 7 a.m. At least one was still working 12 hours later in a nearby restaurant serving dinner to celebrating families.

The sharp reminder of such retrograde realities came, of all places, right in the middle of the day’s commencement ceremony. There, between sublime student renditions of “America the Beautiful” and “Lean on Me,” and the concluding parade of graduates in their red gowns and white tassels, Blair scheduled its keynote address — the traditional prose of dreams and aspirations, humor and advice, humility and perspective.

For that honor, Blair chose one of its more conventionally successful alumni, Jacqueline Hinman. Hinman is a 1979 graduate and a former chief executive officer of CH2M, a Fortune 500 engineering company with global experience in fossil fuels and large-scale transportation ventures. She left the leadership post in 2017 after CH2M’s miscalculations on a couple of major projects forced it to seek an outside buyer.

Her speech to the rainbow of Blair students and families lasted less than 10 minutes. In it, Hinman focused on practical tips for getting jobs in the corporate world. She ticked off four specific examples for the graduates: Not answering their phones during job interviews, not having parents intervene on their behalf, closely watching personal appearances and avoiding controversial postings to social media.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with following your dreams, choosing the right career path or working hard to meet your goals,” she told the graduates. “It’s about how you present yourself, to get and keep your job.”

She began her section on appearances by acknowledging it would be “controversial.” She then advised the students to pay attention when seeking employment to “everything from your clothing and accessories, your hairstyle, to tattoos, to piercings, to fingernails, to makeup, to weight loss, to weight gain, to identity — to whatever you think would project a physical image.”

Hinman met beforehand with some of Blair’s elected student government leaders, and she said they had invited her advice on the topic. She listed her credentials as including having hired or overseen the hiring of some 60,000 people — “from engineers, of course, but to garbage collectors, to public relations specialists, to IT geeks” and beyond.

“I know that a career exists for every possible type of physical appearance out there, whether it’s an in-person or a remote job,” she said. “All I’m asking you to do is modulate your appearance to the requirements of the job.”

The intractable nature of inequity in our lives is that the system makes it so tricky to figure out who, if anyone, is to blame for imposing it on us. Hinman herself battled into the rare realm of a woman running a Fortune 500 company, and she no doubt saw her advice as a true service for students trying to rise above their own very difficult circumstances.

As for Blair, it perhaps could have found someone with a message more ambitious than suppress your body image and even your personal identity to get a job, and don’t answer the phone even if you might be a single parent with a child left at home.

Blair, however, is a public school with resources so limited that its seniors had to spend most of their graduation rehearsal setting out their own chairs on their football field. As such, Blair appears to be devoting all it can toward helping students with no parents and those with their own babies somehow miraculously walk across its graduation stage — and then continue to take care of themselves and others around them.

As a reflection of the cold realities she experienced in the world — and that still remain out there — Hinman’s dark vision of the restricted life awaiting Blair’s young adults was perhaps understandable. But as a parting message for arguably one of the biggest and most diverse groups of teenage Americans heading out into the world this year — served up without any discernible misgivings over the perspective and life values she was passing along — made for a sad moment on a picturesque day that otherwise celebrated hundreds of individual and collective wins against the structural confines of that world.