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Featured ArticleCommencement - the Seinfeld Generation

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When I graduated from elementary school, there was no opportunity to choose between traditional and non-traditional. As a matter of fact, in 1961 there wasn't even a hint of what non-traditional would mean in years to come. Boys wore blue blazers, white pants and white bucks. Girls wore similar versions of maidenly pastel dresses. One student flouted the dress code. He wore dirty bucks, not white bucks at the second wearing, but oxfords whose original color was closer to wheat than white. His inappropriate footwear stands out in the class picture as a fashion faux pas. Twenty-five years later, he abducted his four children from his estranged wife and absconded to parts unknown. I hope he had the proper footwear.

By 1965, the Beatles had begun to make their mark on the American fashion scene, and a few rambunctious curls escaped the confines of male mortarboards. Our caps and gowns were substantial garments of gabardine, as heavy and stately as the occasion warranted. It was mighty hot in the airless auditorium that evening, but the welcomes and farewells were far from incendiary. Statesmen (there were so few stateswomen then!), superintendents and students recapped the theme of perseverance and success. Most of us were still engaged to the American dream, though some had had been galvanized by the Kennedy assassination. A few radical upstarts had heard of Vietnam and the Domino Theory, but most of the action at post-graduation parties had little to do with protest. We danced demurely to the Beatles, most of us just happy to find someone to hold our hand.

Four years later, I was begowned again. Adorned in robes of somber black gabardine, members of the Class of 1969 at my small eastern college waited silently to shake the hand of our president and receive a genuine sheepskin diploma. Animal rights wouldn't be discovered until at least fifteen years later. Though only four years had passed since high school graduation, the world had changed radically. Blue blazers and white pants were as outdated as perruques and weskits. We had initiated bellbottoms, tie-dye, buffalo sandals, and the dispersal of denim beyond the working class. Hair was unisex. "They look like girls", our parents protested when they met our young men. They needn't have worried. In the spirit of the sixties, we had already checked that out. We had protested government policy in Vietnam, university policy in the dormitories, personal policy in sexuality and birth control. Not far from Walden Pond, we took Thoreau's policy of transcendentalism to its pedantic extreme. We felt enlightened, embittered, and empowered. We trusted no one over thirty. Like many of my classmates, I pinned a large red fist --the symbol of universal protest -- to my graduation gown. A light fragrance of cannabis wafted from the bleachers to the stage. Almost thirty years later, I have completely forgotten why I wore the red fist or what I thought was so wrong. I still remember, however, the feeling that I had the power to change it.

I have sat through countless graduations since, watching classmates, friends, students, and even children of friends make the transition from ignorance to independence. To my dismay, academic gowns are now made of translucent polyester, a fabric which has about as much dignity as a leisure suit. Speakers are generally chosen for wit and oratory, abandoning the gifts of genius to the gift of gab. Bubbles, balloons, and bouquets fill the air, mercifully enhancing the ageless platitudes issued by aging School Board members. (Don't trust them, though. Some are as old as fifty!) Solemnity is as absent as Ferris Bueller.

Recently I attended a graduation at a small independent secondary school. Pensive pipers led the processional, plaids puffing and kilts kicking. The headmaster and his male charges appeared in blue blazers and white pants, all wearing the school's striped tie. The young ladies --a group for whom the terms "girls" and "women" both seem inappropriate -- wore white. I even saw a few pairs of white bucks peeping under the rows of commencement cuffs; the only shoe whose description lasts for one wearing only. But I also saw sandals, sneakers, and even a pair of bedroom slippers. Students displayed their talents, members of the board spoke weightily, and teachers earnestly presented awards. One young man walked somberly to the podium to accept his honor. His white pants were impeccably creased, and his well-fitting blue blazer bespoke of bespoke. Not a hair was out of place on his shining head as he faced the audience and accepted his award. "Our parents may remember where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy died", he said, "but ours is the Seinfeld generation". After joining them every Thursday night from sixth grade on, he was sure they would all remember when the cast which had perfected the art of doing nothing and getting famous for abandoning his peers to their own initiative. His timing and delivery were impeccable. Even before the audience finished laughing at his wit, friends and family were struck by the wry gravity of commencement, a paradoxical ending and beginning in a polyester wrapper. As his listeners shook their heads in wonder, the young speaker turned to walk toward his seat. To my great delight, a magnificent thick braid hung almost to the waist of his fine tailored blazer. My cheeks ached from smiling.
I guess you can go home again.


Written by Marcia Brown Rubinstien
June 26, 1998

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