Commence: What Did I Begin at High School Graduation?

As I recall, it was a beautiful late spring day. There was a breeze blowing across the football field as my classmates and I walked the couple of blocks down the hill from Southwest High School. Folding chairs and a podium awaited us on the field and the home team bleachers were filled with our families, friends and members of the community.

As class president, I was to give the commencement speech. I had typed it on an ancient manual typewriter the night before, not on ordinary note cards but on 4 x 6 cards I had cut from a Jerry Lewis telethon poster I had left over from a girls organization I was a member of. My best friend and I had taken one last trip to Zantigo’s across from the mall late that afternoon. I returned home about 5:00 and asked my mother where my gown was. She had wanted it to look nice and had taken it to be pressed at the dry cleaners (her own ironing skills had resulted in my brothers and I outgrowing most of our clothing while they lingered with good intentions in a large wicker “ironing basket”). My brother who had graduated from college a few weeks earlier dashed down to the Pilgrim Cleaners in the Linden Hills business district where he banged on the already locked door and persuaded the remaining employee that he really needed his sister’s graduation robe.

Most girls wore a dress, sun-tan colored hosiery and white dress shoes under the purple gown. I wore lavender pantyhose, my purple shoes from prom, my brother’s Minneapolis Public School’s boys gym shorts that had been patched on the butt with boldly patterned fabric from a girl’s bikini. The ensemble was topped off with a T-shirt that had come in the mail after submitting postage and proof of purchase. It was pink and proclaimed “I’m Baby Soft”. It was 1981 and apparently that is what a leader looked like.

One might suspect that giving a speech would make one nervous but after a year of leading “Senior Home Rooms” on Wednesdays each week and a couple of years emceeing “Pep-Fests” that did not intimidate me at all. The anxiety-inducing portion of the evening was the reading of the graduates names, a task shared with my vice president. We announced them and they received their diploma cover (no diplomas until your gown is turned in and all text books and athletic equipment has been accounted for) and a handshake from the principal and other folks from the district.

You may wonder why reciting the names of the people you had gone to school with for years would be so taxing, so I’ll explain. A very large portion of my class was comprised of kids I had not gone to school with my whole life. They did not live in our corner of Minneapolis, they had been arriving by bus for the previous couple of years. Southwest had been selected a couple of years earlier to house the English as a Second Language (ESL) program for the city. In an unfortunate oversight, in what I am convinced would not happen today, there was very little explanation of who these people were, why they were here and most importantly what they had been through. Most were Hmong and Laotian and some were from Iran. Though they attended our school and we all ate in the same lunchroom, for the most part we were not classmates at all. It was years before I fully grasped the horrific circumstances many of these students had experienced before ever arriving in Minneapolis. When organizing class reunions I have been asked why none of our Vietnamese classmates attend. Though I mailed invites to the five and ten year gatherings to the addresses they lived at senior year I have never got any responses. I assume that high school memories for them are not a scrap-book filled with school activities and old dance photo’s but more of learning English and being thrust into a large and not terribly friendly building across town from where they lived. It was not until commencement rehearsal that I learned that Nguyen was pronounced more like “Win” than “Nugent”.

In looking back I wonder what any 17 year old who was born and raised in Minneapolis could possibly convey to the kid who grew up across the ocean or for that matter across the street. I talked about parents taking us to kindergarten in the fall of 1968 and I recited from Desiderata an encouragement to “Go placidly amid the noise and haste…” and I left them with the wisdom that I just heard again in a speech last week about ships being safe in harbor but that not being what ships are made for. As I write this, I realize that with both of my parents gone, I may be the only one that has retained any recollection of the content of my commencement address.

So to answer my question of what did I commence at commencement, I say that leaving the security of the familiar is when one really begins to learn. So there was a lot that I learned entering Lake Harriet elementary in 1968 when I left the security of my home to begin  formal education and that the most valuable of my learning has taken place beyond the familiarity of Southwest High School. I truly did not have much life experience or wisdom to share with my classmates in June of 1981. Would a wise person really lecture “Boat People” on where ships are safe?


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