Time for reflection

by David Herszenhorn | 6/12/94 5:00am

Newspaper stories about graduation ceremonies focus on the events that happen on stage. In The New York Times tomorrow, the story about Dartmouth's 1994 Commencement will report the number of graduating students. The story will contain a quote from Secretary of Labor Robert Reich's keynote address and probably a quote from College President James Freedman's eloquent speech about discovering that he has cancer.

As a journalist, at Dartmouth and elsewhere, I have covered my share of Commencements. What the stories generally miss and what interests me most about graduation today is not what happens on stage, but what goes through the minds of everyone sitting there and listening, probably with only half an ear, for the name of someone they know to be called out on a microphone.

I suspect that some graduating seniors will approach the commencement ceremony with grave seriousness. They will listen intently to each and every word uttered by each and every speaker and from that attempt to discern some foolproof life advice. It is a fine way to sit through graduation, but having sat through commencements before not only listening to speakers but writing down everything they say, I doubt any of these folks will walk away all that satisfied.

The happiest '94s walking across the platform will be those who have taken these few hours to enjoy a last opportunity to sit on the Green, on a (hopefully) sunny Sunday and to think.

Honestly, I am quite skeptical of highly ritualized activities. Regardless of what anyone says, the Commencement ceremony of 1994 is nothing all that special in and of itself, not much different than graduation last year or next. Bagpipes, "Pomp and Circumstance," caps, gowns, valedictorian, blah, blah, blah. A lot of people talking at you, but nobody really talking for you, to you honestly. Nobody is going to get up and tell you about your best friend or about the loves you found and lost or about the things you have learned and about the ways you have changed over the years. They can talk about themselves, they can imagine what you might have experienced, even guess what you might be thinking like I am right now. But the reality is, the most important events at graduation today will take place in your own head.

It would be fascinating if the random thoughts of each and every senior could be flashed on a screen like MTV video clips. It might also be a little frightening, but at least a reporter sitting in the press bin against Webster Hall could begin to understand the real story:

1,000 young adults assessing their achievements and lamenting their regrets, pondering the past and considering the future, reminding themselves of who they like and who they don't. Worrying, maybe, as one friend told me he would, about who there will be to go to breakfast with four weeks from now. Maybe listening to a speaker and thinking of Floyd in the film "True Romance," saying "Don't condescend me man." Or perhaps bemoaning a headache leftover from last night's party or day-dreaming about nothing very profound.

I hope members of the Class of 1994 can walk away from graduation having benefited from their own personal valedictory speeches, having come to some resolutions about the choices they made in college and having some clearer understanding of the choices to be made down the road.

What have you accomplished for yourself and for others? Did you help make Dartmouth a better place than it was when you got here?

For all its overdone formalities and conventions, graduation is actually a pretty good time to think and to take inventory of what you came to Hanover with, what you are taking away and what you still need to discover out there. Like pilot to co-pilot take yourself through a list:

A little knowledge? Check.

Some experience? Check.

A few friends? Check.

A higher level of self-understanding? Hopefully, check.