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June 6, 2008

rite of passage

Today was graduation day for our older daughter. A high school commencement always marks the moment when a community of students and parents dissolves and the students formally take their place in the larger adult world. In this case, the disruption of the old group--the class of 2008--seemed especially profound, because the school is small and continues from kindergarten all the way through twelfth grade. So we have known many of the families since our daughter was six and I was 28. An annual cycle of concerts, plays, exams, speeches, games, and potluck dinners is coming to an end.

As for the adult community that these kids will enter--that also is a special case. Their families may be diverse in terms of ethnicity, wealth, and power, but as a group, this class is an elite. They attend an expensive and selective private school in the capital of the world's richest nation. Some of their parents are wealthy, powerful, or famous. Other families in the class of '08 have none of these traits, but they are closer to power and glamor than most human beings are, simply by virtue of attending the school.

Although today's graduates may have trouble replicating the success of their parents, some will use their advantages to go much farther. I have an image of a generic large house, kept spotlessly clean by a housekeeper, with granite counters, a spacious bedroom for each child in which Legos and American Girl dolls have given way to laptops and lacrosse sticks, and perhaps a library. Each of these kids is heading out from such a home, on a path to own one, or both.

So much is already encoded in an 18-year-old. They are genetically encoded; their faces and bodies are turning into replicas of their parents'. And they carry cultural codes. When, for example, the student chorus performs old songs about romantic relationships, the kids are singing from limited personal experience, but mainly they are play-acting roles that are destined for them. (Adolescence is in part acting, in part actually being, and the line is always blurred.) They sing, speak, and even dress so well that the scene looks unrealistic, a Hollywood production with 20-something actors pretending to be graduating from high school. Cokie Roberts delivers the commencement address on a dappled lawn, facing a house built in 1803. The students' composure and competence are encoded, too. They don't have "self-esteem" --as that phrase is commonly used in relation to kids--but rather a solid awareness of their own actual talents, opportunities, attractiveness, and importance in the world. They have been groomed, if not to run the country, at least to enter the professional class of our metropolitan cities. They want to be responsible and ethical; we must hope that they will be.

June 6, 2008 4:39 PM | category: none


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