A Navy Celebration Instead of a Scandal

COMMENT

May 29, 1994|By ELISE ARMACOST

In the end, the U.S. Naval Academy Class of 1994 hid its scars well.

Last Wednesday's graduation ceremonies betrayed a few reminders of the trauma of the last year and a half, but not many.

You couldn't see the void left by 24 midshipmen expelled for cheating, or the 64 who received lesser punishments and were not allowed to toss their hats with their classmates, or the one killed in a terrible automobile accident.

The skies above Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis were clear. So were the faces of the young men and women who paraded onto the field.

The 98 top-ranked students marched in first, the ones headed for advanced study programs at top universities all over the world or Surface Warfare School or coveted assignments on ships and subs.

Beyond the academy grounds, they attracted little notice these last four years. But Graduation Day belonged to them.

To Erik S. Smith of Blue Springs, Mo., who finished first in his class.

To Crofton's Karen M. Heine, the top-ranking female graduate, 28th in her class, who wants to be the first woman assigned to a submarine.

Some tried to look appropriately solemn as they walked in, but couldn't quite manage to suppress a smile; the faces of others were lit like candles.

The rest of the brigade followed, blinding in white and gold.

The Blue Angels roared.

A cannon blasted a 21-gun salute.

Marches were played and the National Anthem was sung.

Reporters who expected something unusual at this graduation because the Class of '94 had more than its fair share of troubles went back to their newsrooms disappointed. There was but one direct reference to the cheating scandal, and that came from President Clinton in a tone that said, "Put this in perspective, and move on."

"Ultimately," he said, "the test of leadership is not constant flawlessness, but is rather marked by commitment to continue always striving for high standards, to learn honestly when one falls short, and to do the right thing when it happens."

Not another word about Electrical Engineering 311, and really, what would have been the point? The academy may not be done cleaning up that mess, but that is the academy's problem.

As for the graduates, the hundreds untouched by the scandal needed no lecture; the handful who may have done wrong but escaped censure are officers now and have to move on, too. The president's brief words were as useful a message as they could hear.

Funny things, graduations.

They all look pretty much alike, from Severna Park High School to Harvard to the Naval Academy.

Take away the traditions and trappings of individual institutions, and what do you have?

Young people with relief and joy on their faces.

Speeches that drone on too long.

Awards.

Cheers from families and friends.

Classmates pumping their fists in the air and brandishing their diplomas.

Tears and laughter.

An ending and a beginning.

President Clinton and the television cameras notwithstanding, what happened last week in Annapolis was just another graduation.

Secretary of the Navy John Dalton talked 15 minutes longer than he was supposed to. By the time half of the 868 diplomas had been handed out, the dignified decorum that marked the beginning of the ceremony had disintegrated. The mids jumped off the podium, high-fived and back-slapped like the kids they still are.

Afterward, some of the graduates talked about the scandal, about what a tough year it has been, about friends and classmates who were expelled. Pointless to pretend that what happened didn't happen.

But even as they spoke, you could tell they were leaving all that behind. The shadow of a botched test could not quench the spirit of the day.

Graduations are celebrations.

This one was no different.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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