(Host) Last weekend commentator Philip Baruth delivered the commencement address at Colchester High School. It was the first time he’d been back to high school for a long time, and at least time around, it was exactly what he needed.
(Baruth) I don’t know about you, but for me, things seem particularly complicated these days politically I mean. As a nation, we’re divided right down the middle; and our suspicions and disagreements spill over into everything. The two sides see two entirely different realities because their preconceptions guide and predispose their perceptions. The split is troubling, and it’s tiring.
I think that’s why Ronald Reagan’s funeral became such a roadblock in the media roadblock being the term for an event that dominates all channnels and major newspapers. For many people, I think, it was a godsend not the death of course, but the fact that the nation could turn its eyes to one place, and think a fairly simple stream of thoughts about a single subject for a week. And coming on the heels of months of horror stories from Iraq, horror stories that have suddenly reached into the upper levels of the Pentagon if not higher, I think many people were understandably relieved to have a patriotic week of state-funeral coverage.
But I must be a hopeless case, because midway through the week I started wondering about the length of the coverage, and the tone of the coverage, which was not just elegiac but reverential. And not only was Ronald Wilson Reagan a man with whom I had real problems, but by Wednesday or so I found myself doing the election-year calculations every time I heard another story about Reagan. And so for me, the Reagan moment didn’t relieve my own political fatigue, and it didn’t stir my patriotism as it did for so many others.
But something else last week did both, fortunately. I was asked a while back to give the commencement address at Colchester High School’s twenty-ninth commencement this year, and I did that on Saturday morning. I had forgotten what it’s like to file into a high school, with the entire gymnasium packed with students and parents and teachers, and the banners of victorious soccer and tennis and cross-country teams hanging all around you like tribal colors. The school band struck up Pomp and Circumstance and then heroically kept playing it over and over again, for a good fifteen minutes, until every last kid had found their place on the seating chart.
We said the Plege of Allegiance, and I didn’t hesitate, the way I sometimes do now, at the words Under God. Suddenly it didn’t matter that the Supreme Court has just decided a charged case over those three syllables. I just said the Pledge the way I learned it in high school, because I was in a high school and I figured there was time enough another day to think through that particular moral puzzle. The graduates filed in and they looked so incredibly young, and you had to love them for the way they both respected the traditions and selectively broke them: one young woman came down the aisle blowing bubbles, and when they posed for their picture just before leaving the stage, almost everyone hammed it up a little, and watching that irreverence and cheekiness made me glad to be an American. At one point, a kid with severe disabilities was led up the platform, where he shook hands with the principal and the Superintendant, and then he had to do what all the other kids had had to do: pose on the lip of the podium for ten or fifteen seconds unassisted. And the special ed teacher who’d been leading him had to step back and let him do it, alone. And it was obviously a real struggle to balance himself there, but he did, and he got full-throated cheers from everyone. And the valedictorian got cheers for being wicked smart, and the kids who’d emigrated from various war-ravaged parts of the world, Africa, Bosnia, got cheers for their strength of will as well as their brains. The exchange student from Germany got bear hugs from her host family.
And I walked out of there in love with everybody. They collectively restored my faith in the public school system, and not only that, but my faith in this nation itself, something I’ve lost track of more than once in the dark months and years following September 11.
Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.