Questions at graduation

Commencement: Children's author Maurice Sendak enjoyed an interview by Sanford J. Unger 22 years ago on NPR and asked that they try it again at Goucher College.

May 22, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

College presidents typically greet their keynote commencement speakers with a handshake and then sit down.

But yesterday at Goucher College, President Sanford J. Unger didn't yield when Maurice Sendak approached the podium. Instead, Unger launched into an interview of the famed children's author - something the former National Public Radio host had first done nearly 22 years ago.

"What we talked about has resonated with me ever since, which is the importance in life - the importance for children, in particular - to learn how to be afraid," Unger said. "And I wonder if you could elaborate on that for us today."

FOR THE RECORD - In an article in Saturday's editions, the name of Goucher College President Sanford J. Ungar was misspelled.

The unusual commencement address was Sendak's idea, who enjoyed his earlier interview with Unger so much that he suggested they try it again yesterday in front of the school's 320 graduates. The event was held in the gymnasium after a 30-minute delay when a brief morning shower forced the exercises indoors.

The gym holds about 2,100 people normally, but considerably more crammed into the building. It got so hot that many perspiring parents stumbled outside to cool off and get a cup of water from dispensers set up by the college. Before interviewing Sendak, Unger thanked the group for "putting up with slightly warmer temperatures than we anticipated."

Unlike most commencement speakers, Sendak, 75, did not offer many easy-to-digest life lessons for graduates. Instead, he focused on his childhood, which he described as a sickly, nervous time when he "learned to be afraid ... of everything."

He spent much of his time drawing and reading with his older siblings and worrying about incidents like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932. "There is a threat of anxiety ... in almost every aspect of life," he said.

Much of Sendak's work is darker than other children's books. Some critics thought his best-selling Where The Wild Things Are, which chronicles the adventures of a boy named Max who travels to a distant island inhabited by beastly creatures, was too violent for children. "I've foisted my own terrified childhood onto generations of children," Sendak joked.

But he said scaring children, or adults for that matter, by being truthful is better than lying to them, and that many underestimate children's ability to understand difficult and traumatic events.

Sendak said a friend's daughter was at a school near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. She wasn't hurt during the terrorist attacks on the twin towers, but when her worried parents picked her up that day, she told them that she saw some "birdies" burning as they flew around the buildings.

Her parents didn't bring up the day's tragedy, but when her father was tucking her in, the girl said, "Daddy, I know they weren't birdies."

Sendak drew a parallel between untruthful parents and the administration of President Bush, whom he criticized sharply. There is a "cloud of dishonesty that hangs over this country that makes me sick," Sendak said to rousing applause. "I've never felt as low a pitch as I feel now."

Even though he didn't deliver a typical address, Sendak closed with an upbeat message. "Let the wild revolution start. Go get 'em. Go get 'em," he said as the graduates again applauded.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore also held its commencement ceremony yesterday, featuring television journalist Tim Russert as the keynote speaker. Nearly 1,800 students received degrees.

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