In the aftermath of covering eight high school commencement ceremonies it is somewhat stunning to realize that all of them struck such similar themes. Three of valedictorians (or salutatorians) even quoted the same book: Dr. Suess’s “Oh, The Places You’ll Go” (one of them apparently reading it in its entirety from the podium).
Eerily, at “Suite101.com,” a Web site for writers, in the “psychology” section this book is touted as “a popular graduation gift for students. ‘Oh! The Places You’ll Go’ works whether students are graduating from high school or college or adults are embarking on a new stage of life! It’s about challenges and change.” The page goes on to explain in some detail what the protagonist deals with in the book, which is 48 pages long.
In 1957 Ted Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Suess) wrote the “The Cat in the Hat” as a unruly remedy to the insipid primers featuring squeaky clean children called Dick and Jane; the books were boring kids so badly that they were dissuading them from reading. Thirty-three years later, instead of needing waking up, Geisel apparently believed that kids needed some assurance. The larger world, once portrayed in the media as stultifyingly conformist and predictable, had, after three decades of counter-cultural tumult, become bafflingly heterogeneous and daunting.
In the four decades since Geisel wrote “The Cat in the Hat” a generation of children have grown up and themselves had children, who are now graduating from high school (and have been doing so for years now). The Boomer kids who took the Cat in the Hat as a role model and had fun with their lives, wreaking havoc in various ways with their parents’ notions of propriety, inherited a society that they, in their vast numbers and consumerist frenzy, had helped to create.
After living through an adolescence and young adulthood during which their mantra was “take chances,” the Boomers have developed a culture, the primary guiding principle of which seems to be “promote safety.”
People moved from cities and suburbs to “ex-urbs,” stating unself-consciously that they were doing so “in order to raise their children in a safe environment.” These small towns probably are safer than the cities. There are drugs in small towns, but not, you know, as many and as hard … most of the time … we think. There aren’t any gangs in small towns; the bullies operate solo or in smaller groups, generally without firearms. There isn’t any violent crime in small towns … except among people who know each other and decide to get even for some reason.
When our staff wades into the bound volumes of these community newspapers (some of which have been around since the 19th century) to do our occasional “This Month in History” features, they often find that the headlines from 25, 50, 75 and 100 years ago are alarmingly similar to the ones we put on top of stories the week before. There has been crime, bad behavior (including violence), drugs (especially if you count alcohol) and other hazards in these towns for as long as they have been here.
In fact, it seems obvious that their perceived safety is a function of the slow decline of their economies and the departure of young people for (figuratively) green pastures. Stories from the 1860s not uncommonly had the entire village of Trumansburg (for example) erupting in a post-election riot that was prompted by political ill will lubricated by consumption of hard liquor. By the 1960s that sort of thing just didn’t happen in Finger Lakes small towns. They are safe and sound.
Not a single salutatorian or valedictorian stood behind the podium and quoted the Clash classic:
“This indecision’s bugging me / If you don’t want me, set me free / Exactly whom I’m supposed to be / Don’t you know which clothes even fit me? / Come on and let me know / Should I cool it or should I blow?
“Should I stay or should I go now? / If I go there will be trouble / And if I stay it will be double / So you gotta let me know / Should I stay or should I go?”