Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Graduations, Then and Now: The Doors Where We Enter

“We busted out of class, had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.”—Bruce Springsteen, “No Surrender,” from his Born in the USA LP (1984)

Thirty-five years ago today, as I received my high school diploma, I felt much the same sense of relief and release that Springsteen expresses. It wasn’t that I was done with educational institutions—in fact, many of my waking hours would be given over to attending classes, writing papers and cramming for tests, for most of the next 19 years, for undergraduate and graduate degrees, even for adult and continuing ed.

But from this point on, I felt more like a free agent: able to attend a school of my choosing, take majors and additional courses I wanted, manage my work pace, even win friends (or not) among people with no preconceptions about me based on my family or background.

Over the next few weeks, millions of American kids will experience the same sense of wonder and exhilaration that my classmates and I felt in 1978, and that Springsteen—recognized as a fellow member of our tribe of working-class Jersey kids—felt before us.

Part of it is that we struggled to achieve, but we also struggled to endure. For the sad fact of the matter is that the early leaders of the American republic, in an attempt to create a well-informed electorate—voters worthy of rendering “the consent of the governed”—gave birth to a regimented system deeply harmful to young minds. For all the millions this nation has spent, thousands still languish in our vast educational system, loathing (even despairing of) every minute of it.

High school has to be the most artificial, injurious institution ever devised to (mis)shape young people—from the administrators and teachers who, out of the best intentions, devise a web of rules that the young seem bound to challenge, to fellow students who, often out of their own fear of being friendliness, use peer pressure. It is all designed to squeeze out individuality. The pain that adolescents feel during this time—the pain that many don’t even forget years later—stems from that daily struggle.

It just hasn’t seemed to change, from one generation to the next: We are so intent on protecting who we are that we don’t know how to break through to others.

As for subject matter: I can’t say, all these years later, that I can tell you much about cosines or paramecium. It is enough that I recall some details—and, most of all, that I absorbed habits of self-discipline that I’ve been able to apply since then. (It was a geometry teacher who always kept telling me and my classmates, "Always think with a pencil in your hand"--advice that I've applied, oddly enough, in a realm he probably never intended: writing.)

I would need these habits, as the coming fall I was about to leave the cocoon of a high-school graduating class of only about 80—many of whom I had known for 12 years of parochial elementary and secondary school—to go to a secular, Ivy League institution far larger in size.

I certainly didn’t know all that would await me at Columbia, but I already sensed that I would find a community bursting with urban edginess, contention, intellectual energy, ambition and maybe even a few egos. It might not have the close atmosphere of my high school, St. Cecilia, a place where you knew not only everyone in your class but very likely your classmates' other family members. But the university also might nurture a society of achievers in which my drive would not look so exotic, where ideas might excite me in ways I never had known before. It might move me much closer to the person I could become.

Springsteen and others have shown that learning doesn't end with the schoolhouse door, that students are individuals who need to be reached for the impulse that makes them tick. “In the city of myself, upon the continent of my soul, I shall find the forgotten language, the lost world, a door where I may enter,” young Eugene Gant vows in Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical novel, Look Homeward, Angel. 

As I left high school, I was filled with more anxiety about my future than I could really let on. I was also filled with deep affection and love for the people along the way that had helped me seek that “door where I may enter.”  Decades later, I couldn’t forget them if I tried. I hope those who graduate this month will be as lucky to have the kind of friends and teachers I had back then.

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