I stood at the fifty yard line of the football field, looking up into the packed stadium before me. It was June 10, 1978 and I was eighteen years old. I took a deep breath, adjusted my mortar board, and delivered this speech:
Mr. Woodson, Mr. Phipps, Faculty, Students, Moms, Dads and Siblings. Welcome to the graduation exercises for the class of 1978, the most confused class in the history of the world. I’m sure that every class considers themselves the most chaotic. But I have evidence for my class. It all started back in first grade.
Lyndon Baines Johnson was President. Most of us were six. Life was easy then; fat crayola crayons that were flat on one side so they wouldn’t roll and “See Spot Run.” Second grade wasn’t all that bad either. We got harder books and multiplication tables.
It really wasn’t until fourth grade that the trouble started for the class of 1978. It was 1969. We heard all about hippies – we even had older brothers and sisters who were into psychedelic posters, tie-dye jeans and San Francisco. Peace, love and the fourth grade. We were nine. We started, then, independent study. We were supposed to work at our own rate and set goals for ourselves. Do our own thing, as it were. At nine years old – how many nine year olds do you know who can work a their own rate? We made a lot of paper airplanes but didn’t learn a whole lot – except how to waste time, and procrastinate effectively. This carried over to the fifth and sixth grades. Then there were phonics and accelerated learning. We had special classes for the smart kids and special classes for the not-so-smart kids, but the kids in the middle got lost, forgotten and bored.
It was a time of change. Minorities and women were beginning to gather strength. Eleven year old girls were suddenly being told “You can be anything you want.” Richard Nixon was President. And we discovered ourselves in seventh grade. Still doing independent study and still getting away with murder.
Eighth grade – the first year that boys could take Home Ec and girls could take shop. Nixon went to China and we started worrying about High School. High School, and inevitably, the Real World. The people were so big; they must have been at least 17, those Seniors.
1974. Nixon left office. Everyone wanted to be a Woodward or a Bernstein. Kids played Watergate – not war. We had a President who fell down a lot and a teenager in the White House. Sophomore year. Do you believe that it wasn’t until my Sophomore year that I learned the difference between a a noun and a verb? Everyone assumed I knew, but it was lost somewhere between independent study and accelerated learning. For us, college loomed ominously in the near future. Junior year. PSAT’s, SAT’s, ACT’s, achievements, grade point average, class rand, and total encompassing terror.
Senior year. 1978. Finally. College applications, college acceptances and rejections. Now the attitude among educators is “Let’s get back to the basics.” All I can say is “It’s about time!” They tell us “Johnny can’t read,” Susie can’t add” and “that poor girl Janie, she just can’t write.” We’re a video generation. As Lily Tomlin says, “Is your mind like teflon – nothing sticks to it?”
And here in Fairfax County we have huge numbers of National Merit Semi-Finalists. 85% of us here plan to go to college. Thing about that for a moment Moms and Dads. Think about your graduation. How many of you were the first to graduate in your family? How many of your classmates went to college? Grandmas, Grandpas – how many of you graduations from High School? But you fared well enough. Now we’re told that when we get out of college, the diploma we’ll get will be equivalent to our parent’s high school diploma. And we won’t be able to find a job anyway, anywhere.
And there is a phenomenon in the U.S. today. Kids are not leaving home. Why? Why should they, when they have color TV’s, stereos, cars and 476 stereo LPs? When my parents left home, they wanted to better themselves – they were driven. But us.
How can we possibly better the level of luxury we now possess? Why should we go out in a world where it will be hard for us the first five or ten or fifteen years if it is so much easier to stay home?
They say, whoever, “they” are, that we are growing up sooner, that the youth of today is more sophisticated than that of the past. Perhaps. They say that our future is grim and that we may destroy ourselves. Gee, I just love cheerful forecasts.
From were we stand now, things may seem grim and uncertain. But in the year 2000 most of this class will be forty. Maybe with homes, perhaps with children. Who knows, we may even like our jobs.
We may even be as confused then as we are now. But nevertheless, the Class of 1978 will succeed. Like confused classes before us, we’ll do what we have to; we may make a few mistakes, but we’ll get the job done.
Today, I read this speech and wince a little – okay, it was so much better in the delivery, I swear – but I am very proud of the eighteen year old me who stood in front of thousands of people and said these words. I recognize my now-self in the cadence and the construction of this piece. And the future I’m living is uncannily reflected there.
Most of all, I feel… what is it “they” say? Ah, it’s “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
Yes, that’s very true.