Graduation-Time Thoughts on Heroes

COMMENT

June 05, 1994|By KEVIN THOMAS

Last week marked a rite of passage for some 2,000 high school seniors in Howard County.

Family and friends, dressed smartly and puffed with pride, gathered for nine solemn commencement ceremonies, all of which climaxed with elation and relief.

Tradition aside, graduation is not what it was decades ago, when a high school diploma could get you a decent job, if not a career. But it still means something.

fTC If nothing else, it means not joining the ranks of dropouts, which ++ may be the newest measure of success among today's youth. For all the talk about excellence, just the act of avoiding peer pressure and staying out of trouble may the largest hurdle faced by adolescents. Getting the diploma is a breeze after that.

With such a low threshold for measuring success, the heroes of graduation are not so easily singled out anymore. There are no valedictorians chosen for Howard County graduations. Honor is bestowed with egalitarian deftness.

There is no one ideal, but an assortment of paths toward goals that are individually tailored and judged.

When I was taking college sociology courses, they called it self-actualization, in deference to the fact that success for one person may not be success for another.

Self-actualization was something you worked toward, like spiritual growth. You achieved wisdom with age and the understanding that, despite your shortcomings, you were not such a bad person after all, only different from all those you were taught to admire long ago.

In our cynical world, of course, there are no heroes of any sort anymore. They've all shown their human frailty like an embarrassing display of dirty laundry.

The president is accused of sexual harassment.

Jennifer Capriati is not a teen-aged miracle with a racket, just a poor, confused kid, perhaps strung out on drugs.

The lessons of the day are played out on a multimedia stage; a riveting morality play, comical and tragic.

A rock star worth millions blows his brains out when he discovers fame to be less than fulfilling.

Suicide becomes epidemic among a generation that goes by the name "X," meaning nothing except the absence of meaning. Which is to say the absence of purpose. Which is to say nothing is redeeming and all is hopeless.

I have not come close to reaching the depths of despair supposedly felt by this lost generation. But the sands must be shifting under my feet as well because I cannot for the life of me decide who our new heroes should be.

It seems to me that picking a hero these days is such a risky proposition that hedging seems the only safe bet. Given that so many idols fall, why not include the already fallen or the less that ideal among those we honor? At least then, the disappointment would not be so great.

Even this newspaper, taking a democratic approach to the act of honoring achievement, has graced the graduation season with articles about all sorts of designated heroes, from the traditional to new wave.

Centennial High School graduate Amita Shukla, therefore, is featured in an article that details accomplishments as long as my arm, including an award for research on gum disease, thousands of dollars in scholarship money and plans to attend Harvard University this fall.

There is no denying her brilliance or self-determination. But it would also be foolish not to acknowledge that her parents, two biochemists who own a biotechnology company in Columbia, certainly had something to do with her success.

Are they all heroes or just living up to expectations?

Michelle Hamby, a 19-year-old graduate of Atholton High, did it the hard way, by dropping out at 16 and turning to alcohol and drugs.

When she finally came back to high school, she did it with a more mature sense of purpose. Now she wants to attend community college and become a teacher.

Is Michelle's success any less honorable than Amita's? Is it any more honorable? As an adult, I know that it serves no purpose to judge either student's success at this point. That should be left ,, for another time, by someone far more discerning than I.

But as a parent of young children, it disturbs me that I can't point to one of these students and say, "Here is the person I want you to emulate."

The truth is, even if they showed the predictable brilliance of Amita Shukla and the unexpected fortitude of Michelle Hamby, they would still have a long way to go to be self-actualized, which is to say heroes in their minds, not mine.

Equal to the concern I feel about not being able to point to a hero among high school graduates is the utter fear I feel when I realize that most kids look to their parents as models of heroics.

In that role, I am most inadequate. Which is to say I am neither perfect nor self-actualized. Which is not to say that I'm giving up. Because being anyone's hero means a lifetime of hard work.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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