Skinny hippos

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(HOST) High school graduation is a rite of passage that we look forward to, and back on. What kind of knowledge should students have when they reach that milestone, asks commentator Allen Gilbert.

(GILBERT) I was recently asked to speak to a group of graduating seniors at my local high school. It was a tough assignment. What can you say about graduating from high school that hasn’t been said already?

Then I had the good fortune to spend a day with my son’s eighth grade class. Why not ask the eighth graders for help with the assignment, I thought? So I posed this question to them: “What do you want to know or understand by the time you graduate from high school?”

As you might expect, I got a wide range of answers. One student said, “I want to know why dinosaurs went extinct.” Another asked, “What’s the point of mosquitoes and black flies?” “How did Pete Sampras get so good in tennis?” mused another. “How much longer is the Constitution going to last before it vanishes?” someone wondered.

They continued: “What’s outside our sun?”

“I want to know what is expected to happen to all seven continents over the next million years – and what will cause it?”

“Why do pigs snort?”

“When will hippos be skinny?”

“I want to know why American Eagle has the same clothes, but for a lot less, than Abercrombie and Fitch.”

“Why are men more powerful than women?”

“Why can a school make laws or rules that are different from the real world?”

And finally, “Why did I not enjoy life when younger?”

I figured I should try to balance the whimsy of eighth graders with the wisdom of adults. So I posed a parallel question to some of my friends and acquaintances: “What do you know now that you wish you had known when you graduated from high school?”

The adults were – again, as you might expect – a bit more reflective. One said, “You do not learn everything you need to know in kindergarten. Life is more complicated than that.” Someone else offered, “I wish I had known the importance of working effectively with others…and getting results through team efforts.” Another said, “There are far more possibilities in the world than I ever imagined. There are far more careers than those we commonly think of.”

“I wish I knew how many calories ice cream had before I worked at a scoop shop. I gained 20 pounds.”

“I wish I had known how to budget and do financial planning. These are skills that should be learned before, not after, getting into a lot of debt.”

And then there was this uplifting one: “There is no such thing as failure – just more opportunities to learn.”

But perhaps the most fitting response to the whole exercise came from a member of last year’s graduating class. “What do you wish you knew in high school that you know now?” I asked.

He said, “Any advice you may hear now is better learned first-hand.”

Congratulations to the members of the Class of 2005. And if you know by now, won’t you please tell us, when will hippos be skinny?

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert is a former journalist, teacher and consultant currently serving as executive director of the ACLU of Vermont. He has a longtime interest in public policy issues. He spoke from our studio in Montpelier.

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