Published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Friday, July 27, 2012 http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/graduates-special-we-never-were-7468g3f-163923646.html
One summer afternoon in the ‘80’s my friend Jim said, “Our high school years were the last good years of our lives.” Jim and I were fending off desert heat in the shade of his garden during our summer vacation from teaching English at Boise State and I remember wondering whether it was the heat or a lapse in judgment that caused him to say that.
Still, today, while the national conversation considers David McCullough Jr.’s commencement address to the 2012 graduates of Wellesley High in Wellesley, Massachusetts about their not being special, Jim’s idea is worth another visit
Were those years in the late ‘50’s spent dealing with books and the near occasions of sin at Messmer High in Milwaukee the best years of my life? Were any of us special?
Special is easy. We weren’t. Special was not an adjective we applied to ourselves or our prospects. If anything, we were, perhaps, the first generation that differentiated itself by not identifying with adults; specifically, our parents. We were the furtive beginnings of rock. They were the tag end of the decades-long big band era. But that was a distinction we would, or would not, make years later.
Instead, we spent our high school years at ordinary after-school and summer jobs because we knew that if anybody was going to pay our way ahead it was us. We didn’t talk about volunteer work to enhance our applications to one of the Ivy’s or a year touring Asia before the rigors of Stanford. We simply and realistically separated what was possible for us from what was not and moved on without talking much about it. The ordinary, pressure-free nature of what we did inside Messmer and out made those years good.
The contrast between how ordinary we were back when and what we were hearing from our students at Boise State prompted Jim to call our high school years good. Our students were beginning to tell us that ordinary was no longer acceptable. A “C” early on in a semester was a reason to withdraw from a class. The prospect of anything less than an “A” for a final grade became an urgent, late semester request for extra credit work. Being average or even less than perfect was no longer part of their life scenarios. A few years later when I moved to Tucson to begin teaching at Arizona I found that surreal set of student expectations had magnified. It was as if the bell curve, to which all of us are still subject, had disappeared. The notion of a middle was gone, a thought that should resonate with all of us today.
Somewhere in my files is a lecture on the value of being average in which I tried to show that falling into that middle category, the one that keeps the wheels turning and the lights on, enables someone else to research a cure for cancer or develop a V-8 that will deliver 70 mpg.
Being average is the bedrock upon which we all rest. We may or may not build above that solid beginning, but the recognition of its existence and value is essential nonetheless, just as it was to Jim’s idea about our high school years. They were good because they were so ordinary.