A graduate of childhood steps up to the world

May 29, 2001|By Michael Olesker

NEWARK, DEL. -- With rain spilling out of a grumpy morning sky and the first strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" beginning to sound, Sara marched into this open-ended football stadium somewhere in a sea of caps and gowns to take her first formal steps into adulthood.

"Stop her," my wife muttered. "Don't let her do it."

She was joking, but only partly. It is the lament of every parent watching a child at graduation, thrilled that they have made it, and bereft at the thought that this symbolizes a kind of irretrievable separation, that they wish to discover their own sweet world now, that they really are putting childhood behind them.

But where was Sara? There were thousands of graduates out there on the soaked football field at this University of Delaware stadium, all in matching caps and gowns, all ducking the morning's scattered raindrops. And, in the midst of it all, my wife's cell phone rang.

"Hello?"

Her eyes popped open.

"It's Sara," my wife said. "She said she's looking at us right now."

She'd found us before we found her. We were sitting around the 40-yard line, and she was down on the 20, like some quarterback driving toward the academic end zone, waving happily and chattering into her cell phone, a little bubble of glow in the overcast morning.

She was sitting with friends. The friends have been consoling each other in these final days of school: Yes, they will stay in touch with each other after graduation; yes, they will stay friends forever. But they know that the best intentions are only a maybe, and they know they have bonded across four years they will never be able to recapture.

And the friends, and the classmates all around the big ocean of graduates, were on cell phones of their own, calling parents, calling buddies, calling their favorite bartenders for all we knew.

They are different, this generation. We've been noticing it for years. They ratify each formal step of their lives in ways far beyond anything in their parents' generation: multitudes of photographs filed into entire libraries of albums, each snapshot a confirmation of the grand time that they had before the next series of validating snapshots.

And they telephone each other. The phone calls are further confirmation: Not only will they have a diploma to show they've graduated, but they've got a real-time witness on the other end of the line who can vouch for it.

In a world that moves so quickly, and has such a feel of impermanence, the photos are their record of shared times. And the endless phone conversations are their assurance that they aren't going through this alone.

When Sara was still in high school, there was something big and important in the news. Her mother and I explained that once in a while something happens that you will always remember where you were when you heard about it.

"Like the assassination of John Kennedy," I said.

"Or the Challenger exploding," her mother said.

"Has there been anything in your life," I asked, "that you'll always remember where you were when you heard the news about it?"

"Yes," Sara said, expression deadpan. "When I heard the news about call-waiting."

I remembered that remark when the historian David McCullough delivered his commencement address Saturday. It was a lovely speech about making the most out of life, and about the people who make history being normal human beings, not so different from anyone in this big graduation crowd.

Caesar Rodney, for example. Rodney was the little man from Delaware who rode horseback for two days to Philadelphia, dying from cancer, his face half eaten away, desperate to put his signature on the Declaration of Independence.

I don't know how many of the graduates heard McCullough. A few of them were still on their cell phones, and others were caught up in a world distant from their parents' and light years from Caesar Rodney's.

It's a world where they are so barraged each day -- by TV images, by the ubiquitous telephones, by computers, by the stuff of classroom lectures that will now have to be translated into the workplace -- that they sometimes seem to have no space for anything but the here and now.

When I look at Sara, I see a young woman hungry to be part of her time -- but also wanting, more and more, to know about the things that preceded her. She is smart and sensitive and remarkably insightful. Her formal education has ended, but as she reached for her diploma, we saw a young woman just beginning to embrace a very big world.

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