Archive for June, 2009

Graduating into a mad world

June 19, 2009

J0427709 Last week I attended four graduation ceremonies for three kids (two for the highschooler, the baccalaureate and the commencement; one each for the middle schooler and the elementary schooler). I watched 821 kids cross stages to shake with the right and take with the left. I heard something around 30 speakers, and at least a dozen songs. I learned that middle school administrators and counselors should not give speeches, but elementary school kids can be darned eloquent. I loved the influence of the Pacific Islander community; many graduates, Islander or not, marched down the aisles wearing colorful leis—of flowers, candy, or money—from family and friends. And I got a little teary when our former nanny—who I’d lost touch with several years ago so hadn’t been able to send a grad announcement—showed up anyway at all the graduations with leis in hand, but didn’t recognize my eldest, he’d just changed so much.

The speeches, the songs, and the ceremonies kept coming back to the same theme—these kids, these new graduates, are living in a messed up world that somehow they’re going to have to fix. It’s a heavy message for what is normally a jubilant season, but it is unavoidably in the air. Some kids lost friends to recent suicides; some lost college options to the economy. And they’re all watching their older friends and siblings come home from college and find they can’t get a summer job anywhere, not even at McDonald’s.

Kavita Ramdas, head of the Global Fund for Women and speaker at the high school bacc, went right at the bittersweet mood, talking about the mad world these kids have been living in.

Said Kavita, “Most of you graduating seniors were about 10 years old when two planes full of people flew into and destroyed the tallest buildings on the planet.  You grew up in a United States that was irreversibly connected to the rest of the globe, whether it liked it or not.  You grew up in a nation at war, so you grew familiar with people and places far away from the quiet tree-lined streets of Palo Alto. The radio and TV news dropped names like Osama Bin Laden and Sadaam Hussein, Iraq and Afghanistan, Basra and Baghdad, Kabul and Peshawar.  You grew up thinking it was normal to take off your shoes at airport check points and to hear automated voices announce threat levels code orange or red.  You grew up in a United States that sent (and still sends) young people your age to risk their lives in places where they neither speak the language or understand the culture, but are nonetheless expected to find and destroy the “bad guys”.  Your “mad world” has included Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural disasters to ever hit the United States; and the subsequent televised failure of the wealthiest nation on earth to rescue its poorest citizens; it has included learning about torture being inflicted on prisoners in places Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.” She charged the graduates with nothing more than remaking the world, in big and little ways.

It’s a big responsibility. It seems heavier than the one I had when I graduated high school in the midst of the feminist revolution, which was to prove that women could have it all, to have the career and the family, to not just go to college for the M.r.s. degree, and to never to give up, no matter how hard it got, because that would simply prove that women were indeed not meant to be equal. My personal goal was to distance myself as far as possible from my classmate who announced when school started that her goal was to graduate pregnant (she didn’t quite make it, she went into labor during graduation rehearsal).

Hard as having it all turned out to be, it didn’t feel quite so daunting at graduation time; we were entering a world with every path open. At this year’s graduations, there’s a fog in front of the paths, and no one is sure what will remain when it lifts.

But the hats went into the air on cue, and the graduates went off to celebrate. And celebrate they should. They have a few years left before they have to save the world, and maybe the rest of us can fix at least a few of the problems before then.