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Two Generations of Graduation

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The short, sleeveless polyester dress was the first garment I had worn in years that didn't resemble an Indian bedspread. Its filmy synthetic fabric encased my thighs and fluttered ironically through the stiff neck of my academic robe. Caps and gowns in the sixties were still crafted of gabardine as traditional and weighty as the curriculum. But lime green daisies flowered under my baccalaureate robes as I approached the podium. "Left hand, sheepskin," we had been coached. "Right hand, shake. Brief thank you and continue toward stage right." I know that there must have been stairs leading down to earth from higher education. But today, more than thirty years later, I remember only that I clutched my diploma to my lime-blossomed breast and walked off into thin air. I still have a snapshot of my friend Ruth and me taken not long after our names were called, stifling but not stifled in our black caps and gowns, honor tassels glinting in the sunlight. Pinned to the back of our gowns were bright red upraised fists. "We want our rights and we don't care how. We want a revolution now!" Rationally, I know that I came down from the stage. But reason has never been my strong suit. Ever since that sunny spring morning in 1969, I have been waiting to land, dreading the possibility of becoming a grown-up; dreading the possibility of remaining a child.

Ironically, today's caps and gowns are made of fabric so ephemeral that female graduates are warned to be fully dressed underneath. In just a few weeks, my daughter will complete a new cycle in our family as she becomes the first of the second generation to graduate from college. Soft and solid natural fabrics will gather sedately under her synthetic robes. Though they may have flirted with bellbottoms as ten year olds, hers is a generation that has little time for fantasy and flower-power. The Class of 2001 will conform to the pageantry of Pomp and Circumstance, strutting off the podium with a corporate swagger.

My daughter worked harder in college than I ever did. In fact, for the past five years, her college has won the dubious distinction of being the school where students study for more hours each day than any other campus. I am proud of her direction and diligence, but I wonder if anything she learned as a member of the Class of 2001 compares to the lessons that life taught the members of the Class of 1969. Today, when I have forgotten how to measure the distance to the center of the earth from Walden's Pond or how many drosophila it takes to understand genetic mutation, I still remember the fundamental philosophies from my years at Brandeis. I will consider $120,000.00 well spent if my daughter has learned the following essentials during her undergraduate years:
  1. Friendship is never conditional. Either you are a friend or you are not. That holds true for relationships of daily interaction or fond phone calls after 20 years of disparate lives.
  2. Real literature makes your brain tingle. It can be classical or contemporary, Western, Eastern or stratospheric. Once you know how to read for the tingle, you will have a skill and a pleasure for life.
  3. Don't clutter your mind with facts. Know where to access the information you will need to justify your theories, but keep your neural pathways open for new connections. Facts ground you in what is. Fantasy frees you for what if.
  4. Even if you never ate one at home, taste the artichoke. It's a lot of work to get to it, but, oh, that heart!
  5. Call your mother.

A toast to the future of the Class of 2001 - Before you pick up that briefcase, roll your resume into an aerodynamic paper airplane and let it soar. You never know where it might land.


Written by Marcia Brown Rubinstien
April 25, 2001

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