12:35pm

Wed April 30, 2014
Can I Just Tell You?

First Lady Not First Priority For Graduates

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today - if I could have a few words about the kerfuffle over first lady Michelle Obama's planned trip to speak to high school graduates in Topeka, Kan., next month coinciding with the anniversary of the Supreme Court's landmark decision on school desegregation Brown versus Board of Education. Some parents had complained that, as much as they'd love to hear from the first lady, they were worried her presence might overshadow their children's accomplishments. Some said they'd already invited many family members and were worried that they now have to un-invite them, because they would be limited to a few tickets each. Others worried that the security apparatus would be overwhelming.

So a compromise has been worked out. The first lady will speak at a special senior recognition a day earlier than the original. But can I just tell you - actually it's more of a confession - I was slightly annoyed when I first heard these complaints. Not just because graduations have been the occasion of some of the President and Mrs. Obama's most moving and important messages, but also because it seems incredibly small. Graduations are not just - to use an over-worked commencement speech cliche - an end, but a beginning - a time to think about what's next. I thought making a fuss over a high school graduation implied that this is the end of the road - the high point of what we can expect from these young people. And what kind of message is that?

But then I went to a graduation ceremony last weekend where my husband was honored by his law school alma mater with an honorary degree. Yes, I'm slipping that one in. I have to tell you that it reminded me about why these ceremonies are such important personal occasions, as well as public ones. First, as we told you yesterday, graduations from high school are on the way up. Eighty percent of Americans now graduate from high school, with the biggest growth among African-American and Hispanic students. And that is something to celebrate.

But it's also worth noting that just 30 percent of Americans now have a bachelor's degree. So for the millions of graduates who do not go on to college, that walk across the high school stage is still the only one. It may be hard for people in the everybody-gets-a-trophy world of middle-class parenting to remember that some kids never get one. So if they finally do, it's cherished.

Equally important are all the stories about what it takes each individual to get there. At my husband's alma mater, I loved the decorated mortar boards. One guy was even controlling an animation on his from his smartphone. I'm betting that guy has a job. But most messages were of thanks to Mom and Dad and friends for what they did to get them across the finish line.

Equally moving for me were the stories I heard from some of my husband's law school classmates, who had attended that school at a time when segregation was no longer the law of the land. But at a time when some of their professors were still so nakedly hostile to the small group of black students there that upper classmen felt compelled to welcome newcomers not to be shocked - that even though the ablest among them would likely never see top grades, no matter how much they deserve them. It was a way to making sure that, even if the law could not, there would be no law review, no invitations to top firms. So you can understand how emotional it was for all of them - all of us - to see one of their own honored by the same institution.

Getting back to the Michelle Obama dust-up - history does matter - to use another commencement cliche - because if you don't know where you've been, it's harder to appreciate where you are going. But at a time when we are quick to complain that young people all think they're supposed to be on television, maybe we should also applaud those who felt that a selfie with the family is even more important that with a selfie with a celebrity, even one as down-to-earth as Michelle Obama. You can do both and the compromise worked out ensures that. Not a bad commencement message, as it turns out. And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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