Sunday, May 24, 2009

Commencement 1992

Seventeen years ago, the mortarboard cap and gown put away and the parties over, I closed the door on my undergraduate years, boxed up my affairs in the Hudson Valley (things and relationships), and prepared to move on. On this day in 1992 (a Sunday then, as now), the New York Times reported on weekend commencement ceremonies that had taken place the day before. My college was cited among them. "Bard College held its 132d commencement yesterday on the main campus lawn in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. William Julius Wilson delivered the commencement address to the school's largest graduating class [. . . ]. Dr. Wilson, a sociologist and a professor of race relations and public policy at the University of Chicago, received an honorary doctorate of humane letters." It was not an uplifting ceremony; I was wilting throughout. First, it was hot—or anyway I was hot, sitting under the white tent, shoulder to shoulder with the two hundred plus seniors, doing my best to stay hydrated with Snapple Raspberry Iced Tea. Granted, my impressions were filtered through a wicked hangover from all-night partying the night before, but still. In 1992, the country was in a recession crisis. (Plus ça change . . .) Nothing compared to the economic ills that have battered our country over this past year, but it seemed threatening enough. People feared for their jobs, if they had them. The presidential race of that year reflected the public angst, generating catch phrases such as "It's the economy, stupid!" and, later in the year, independent candidate Ross Perot's "giant sucking sound" of jobs falling away—his comment in reference to the perceived threat of NAFTA, but appropriate for general sentiment about the economy, too: it sucked all right. In that commencement moment, though, with family and friends in attendance, all I really wanted to do was to feel a sense of accomplishment, not fear or worry. I didn't really want to hear how we were being released into a job market that was a disabled mess. Dr. Wilson's speech didn't spare us a thing; it was was a serious harsh on the mellow of the graduating class, at least to my mind. I have to say, though, that I had a great psychic cushion: my immediate future did not involve resumes and job interviews. I was heading to graduate school, riding out the economic turbulence in continued academia; at least, that was the plan. I remember being glad that my familiar lifeline—student status—was not yet severed. Today, I think about all the seniors who have graduated this weekend across the country. I want to say to them that I understand what they may be feeling: that mix of self-congratulation and anxiety; the feeling that this moment in history trumps whatever honors may have been bestowed, and that the prize they are reaching for (if it is a plum job anyway) may elude them for some time more. I hope things turn around soon. I hope this year's graduates keep an optimistic eye on their future, see the opportunity for something better to come out of the recent period of collapse and disillusionment. While life may not be all Pomp and Circumstance . . . I hope that for most, it's still celebration and forward motion.

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