The Unhappiest Place on Earth (my column in the Daily)
Then came graduation from high school and its consequences. In those days the draft was in effect, every 18 year old boy knew that he had to confront the escalating conflict in Vietnam. I joined the Navy. Upon learning that I would be sent to Alameda, California I was delighted at my good fortune. We were at war—life was good. I vowed to return as a civilian and did so a few years later. As Robert Frost would say about taking the road less traveled, “And that has made all the difference”.
Last week my daughter graduated from Menlo-Atherton high school. The outdoor ceremony in the rain more resembled springtime in my Illinois hometown than what Californian’s have come to expect. Still, the weather didn’t dampen the joyful mood—until the student speeches began. The graduates and assembled families were forced to listen to joyless messages of hurt, hate and oppression. Victim-hood was the school mascot and it ran up and down the football field. One complained about restroom cleanliness, another about how her Canadian heritage was held against her and others held unnamed students and administration to account for slights and racism. Little was said about the joy of accomplishment or words of encouragement for fellow graduates. The personal and petulant were somehow seen as befitting the occasion.
Reflecting on my expectations for what would be appropriate to say on the occasion I began to wonder how we got to this point where a top rated school in a desirable community breeds such bitterness. Speakers were chosen by a committee of faculty and staff from whoever wished to tryout. Remember the revered role of the class valedictorian? Neither does Menlo-Atherton High School. You have to wonder if adult supervision might have been in order. Guidance used to imply more than how to negotiate complex college applications.
Adolescent angst has been prime material for countless songs, movies and books. What’s interesting is the disconnect between displeasure and reasons for having it. Although the country is at war, as the Marine color guard at the graduation reminded us, serving in the military is entirely optional. A greater portion of students will go on with their educations than ever before. Society, while imperfect, has never been as accommodating to difference. Listening to contemporary music you’d think the opposite were true. Reflecting on school reading lists going as far back as middle school is to believe that virtue is a conspiracy. Book after book was assigned that questioned parents, doubted society and wallowed in failure. About the only thing without fault was the message being sent to our next generation.
Over the past few months Governor Schwartzenegger and the California Teachers Union have been at loggerheads over the state’s budget. In these situations tempers can and do get out of hand, and yet, I don’t recall a similar level of vitriol being expressed by those who teach and model behavior for students. Reading their signs creates an impression counter to what a parent would want in their children’s teachers
Recently, a group of self-described anarchists decended on University Avenue in Palo Alto. They were assembled for good nihilistic reasons. According the Anarchist Action website "Every aspect of our lives is beyond our control. From where we work to where we sleep, when we go to school and where we play, outside forces dominate our environment, and our lives become repetitions of the same meaningless nothing.”
Marlon Brando played a member of The Rebels motorcycle gang in the 1953 movie The Wild One. In it someone calls out to Brando’s character “Johnny, what are your rebelling against” Brando responds “What d’ya got?” Fearing anti-social behavior, the movie was banned in England for 14 years and was cause for concern in this country as well. As silly as that sounds in this day and age, it does tell us how we once concerned ourselves with civility and virtuous conduct. Until we reserve complaints for genuine problems instead of manufactured ones, California high schools seem headed towards the title “unhappiest place on earth”.