Ralph Gardner Jr: A Graduation For The Ages | WAMC

Ralph Gardner Jr: A Graduation For The Ages

Jun 6, 2020

My college reunion’s this weekend. Or it would have been this weekend if a pandemic hadn’t interceded. I won’t say which reunion it is on the grounds that I’ll be deluged with offers for walk-in bathtubs and medical alert devices. Suffice it to say I don’t feel a day over fifty, except for my lower back.

To be honest, I probably wasn’t going to go anyway. I have nothing against the school. In fact, I agreed to participate in a virtual reunion: a bunch of us telling stories inspired by “The Moth Radio Hour.” Mine involves my mother’s dream that I attend Yale. Spoiler alert: it’s not the site of my cancelled reunion. When my razor-thin rejection letter from Yale arrived my mother took to her bed weeping for days.

My acceptance letter from Middlebury College, my actual alma mater, came the next day. I couldn’t imagine a better college experience even though I took greater advantage of the social than the academic opportunities.  

But reunions have always felt bittersweet. They’re fun, the food is fine, and it’s good to see old friends. But nothing can replicate the sense of community at a small college at the particular time and place when you were an undergraduate there. In my case, the place was Vermont and the time was the 1970’s; a sweet spot between the protests of the Sixties, though we had some of those, too, and the shoulder-padded conservatism of the Reagan era.

More than anything else college felt a charmed period of discovery. Undoubtedly, it doesn’t matter the decade you attended college, or even if you went to college at all to experience the world with fresh eyes. It’s as much the time of life. The myth is that you’re a fully formed adult at eighteen. In truth, you still have a foot in childhood. Research now shows that the teenage brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until approximately the age of 25. That explains a lot, particularly my job performance in my early and mid-twenties.

But one thing that meeting my former classmates on Zoom and practicing our Moth stories has done is to remind me how enchanted those four years were and to make me sympathize with current high school and college seniors who have been deprived their graduations.

In my case, graduation wasn’t so much about accomplishment or closure. The happiest memories aroused are of friends and parties and the studiously unproductive weeks and months leading up to graduation. In high school I recall watching an Errol Flynn film festival on TV at 2 a.m. for several nights in a row. Why? Why not? I’d already gotten into college and I didn’t take seriously my teachers’ threats that if we didn’t keep our grades up colleges could rescind our acceptances.

By the way, Errol Flynn was an actor whose swashbuckling films included The Adventures of Robin Hood.  

College graduation was a bit different. After high school you knew what you’d be doing for the next four years: going to college. And college, at least a college nestled in the Green Mountains, felt as much a security blanket as a launching pad. Life after college remained a huge question mark. It was hard to imagine what you’d do for a living, harder even to imagine that somebody would pay you to do it.

That’s another thing about this pandemic and the disruption it’s caused to routines and rituals. In certain ways the world is on hiatus. When I graduated college, despite the entirely rational fear of the unknown, the possibilities seemed limitless. I believe that’s ultimately what the current protests are about.

It’s about everybody having an equal opportunity to dream and to turn those dreams into reality. When young people of different races and ethnicities march together peacefully it’s about the future, and about having one, given things like racism as well as the way we’re careening towards climate catastrophe.

We’re at an inflection point. Some want to return to the past. Others want to embrace the future. But you can’t return to the past. It’s physically impossible. The only thing you can do is stymie the future’s progress.

The marchers you see on TV every night, including my own children, aren’t just protesting what happened to George Floyd, as heinous as that was; they’re protesting to defend truth, justice and hope, as well as the future of the planet and their inalienable right to inherit it in reasonable working order.

High school and college seniors will be able to look back on this time and realize that, while deprived of the pomp and circumstance of graduation, they were part of something bigger: the generation that, let us hope and mobilize, will be able to say that they rose to the challenge and saved tomorrow.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

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