Straight talk for the Class of '96

June 16, 1996

MY YOUNGEST brother was graduated from North Carroll High School last week in a ceremony I doubt he will remember much. It was nice, but wholly predictable. I suspect the scene was much the same in other auditoriums in other counties: Capped-and-gowned teen-agers welcomed to adulthood with a message so bland they probably forgot it by the time the last diploma was awarded.

nTC I have always wondered how the commencement speech survives. Ostensibly the speaker is supposed to give young people something valuable to think about as they head into the real world. But let's face it, 15 minutes of platitudes about what a great class the Class of '96 was aren't what they need.

So, my brother asked, what would you have said?

A tough question, that. I couldn't answer right away. But it seems to me that if a graduation address is to be anything more than something to sit through before parties and Ocean City, it ought to deal more with where these kids are going than where they've been. And where they're going is no bed of roses.

What would I have said? First, of course, that you should be proud to finish 12 years of school.

But then I would say you should know this is the shift from childhood to adulthood, the most important transition that occurs in life other than the move from within the womb to without. Until now, almost every decision affecting you -- from what books you've been allowed to read in school to when you're allowed to go to bed -- has been made for you. Now you have to make decisions. About your own life. About your neighborhood. About what kind of society your children will inherit. Now you can vote. Now you have clout.

I would say this is a blessing and a curse. That you will love being able to choose your own bedtime but soon grow weary of making other decisions. Move to the city where houses are a better deal, or buy in the suburbs where it's safer? Go to work and start making money or go to graduate school and hope it pays off in the end? Have children now or later? Put Grandpa in a nursing home or let him live with you?

These scenarios seem remote to you now. But they are nearer than you think. Say farewell to the leisurely pace of childhood. Give yourself a summer to celebrate, and then start preparing for life.

The world and you

Read a book on financial planning. Learn how much it takes to buy a house. Bone up on what's going on in the world. Learn how the government works, especially your local government, since it decides the matters that will be most important to you -- from what the schools will teach your children to whether the meadow next to your parents' house becomes a shopping center to how much you pay for tap water.

I would be honest. I would say that many of you who stay in the area will have a difficult time affording a home; that the price of living in a safe neighborhood with good schools may be a long commute; and that you should not be surprised if you switch careers several times during your working life, not because you want to but because you have to.

Your parents may have made good money all their lives at Westinghouse or Beth Steel, but jobs like that are disappearing. This is the age of technology and information, and neither equipment nor knowledge remains relevant very long. Expect to have to take a class every so often, even if you're not headed to college now.

Don't depend on Medicare or Social Security. Start saving money soon. Maybe I'd share a factoid I read recently in a financial journal. Save $50 a month from age 20 to age 65 at an annual average return of 8 percent, and at 65 you can take out $1,658 every month until you reach 100. You would have put in $27,000; you would withdraw $693,300.

By this point, no doubt, they'd be checking their watches, so I'd wrap it up quickly.

If you're the intellectual type, don't get snobby about it. Visit the county fair. Watch ''Barney'' with an 18-month-old. Learn to fix your lawn mower.

If you're the practical sort, don't assume you wouldn't enjoy a trip to the Walters once in a while.

Know what you believe, but don't be a slave to an ideology.

Eat good chocolate. Get plenty of sleep. Avoid the Beltway at rush hour. Feed stray cats. And don't be embarrassed when, years from now, you read what you've written in each other's yearbooks and think, ''How silly it sounds, how callow we were, how little we knew.''

=1 Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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