Not Knowing Is a Place to Start From

May 31, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston -- Commencement season arrives in my city, as it always does, bearing its bumper crop of lilacs and black robes. Grunge and rap music mix in the air with pomp and circumstance. Excitement and anxiety are spoken simultaneously in the body language of soon-to-be-former students.

One by one, the careful rites of passage are enacted. One by one the speakers come to verbally escort the young graduates out of the academy and into what they call the real world.

I don't envy the job this year. After all, the message for this class has already been carved in stone, or at least in celluloid. The best-known valedictorian of the year was Winona Ryder, a graduate of Hollywood who stood at her symbolic, cinematic podium at the very opening of ''Reality Bites.''

After lambasting her elders -- Generation VIII? Generation IX? -- in proper valedictory tradition, she came to the part in her speech when she would exhort her own generation.

''The answer is . . . '' she said pages fluttering in the wind, a slightly stunned expression crossing her face. ''The answer is . . . I don't know.''

This sentiment brought waves of applause from her classmates on the screen and in the audience. ''I Don't Know'' has become a motto for the class of 1994 the way ''Make Love Not War'' was for the class of '68.

If, according to the cliches, the class of 1984 headed lock step for Wall Street, the class of 1994 is warily wandering into a real world of McJobs and McTemps. Their laser-printed resumes, updated on computer programs that didn't exist when they were born, bear a good strong fear of the future. They carry a recognition of reality's bite.

This is the generation born to and bored with baby boomers. They were raised in front of the tube by unraveling families in an unraveling economy. Some look back on the '80s as the good old days and others look back on the '50s -- studied in endless sitcom reruns -- as a child's Eden. But the Nirvana of the '90s was destroyed by the suicide of Kurt Cobain.

We are told again and again that for the first time, we have a generation of Americans who don't believe that they will be better off than their parents. They see the world booby-trapped with unintended consequences. What to do? ''I don't know.''

Well, I will not take away from Generation X -- or Y or whatever -- its sense of uniqueness. It's something that, ironically, every generation shares.

But I wonder how certain the parents of the class of '94 were, or their parents. What about the generation that graduated into the Depression or into the '60s? And even if we were certain, how did our youthful certainties stand the test of time?

It seems to me that reality always bites. Sometimes it nibbles and sometimes it goes for the jugular. But it leaves teeth marks on all of us.

In her new book, ''Peripheral Visions,'' Mary Catherine Bateson, the daughter of anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, says that she often asks adults to do two narratives of their life history.

One version is based on a straight line from yesterday's certainties to today's realities: ''Everything I have ever done has been heading me for where I am today.''

The other one is based on discontinuity: ''It is only after many surprises and choices, interruptions and disappointments, that I have arrived somewhere I could never have anticipated.''

We could tell both stories. But, she says, many of us chose only one: the tale of continuity. It's the one that makes us seem retrospectively in charge of our lives, as if we were and are in control of fate rather than adapting to change. It's the tale we tell ourselves and our children. Yet it's a tall tale, only half true.

At job interviews, Ms. Bateson says, people are asked what they want to be doing in five years. She says, '' 'Something I cannot now imagine' is not yet a winning answer.''

So perhaps the class of '94 isn't that different from any class of twentysomethings. We all live in a changing public and private world.

But when asked about the future, this generation has the honesty to answer: ''I don't know.'' On the final exam they got it right.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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