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Only in America   (June 2005)

Yesterday I had the honor of attending the elementary school graduation of a young friend. There were no ceremonies marking the passage from elementary school to middle school (or intermediate school, depending on your locale and age) "back in the day," and I suppose this could be seen as an example of the sort of "ceremony creep" which parallels the "awards dilution" which is endemic in popular culture ("and for the best hip-hop song assembled entirely of sampling...").

But in this case I think the recognition is deserved, for in today's world the transition to middle school in indeed a perilous one. Elementary school is, alas, the end of innocence; "popular culture"--that is, the glorification of flashy greed, the degradation of women, the ubiquity of drugs and violence, and the pressure on girls to focus less on math and science and more on their appearance--fills every crevice of teen life.

This bittersweet recognition of the difficulties ahead was counterbalanced by an awe at the multicutural wonder that is this nation. Every ethnicity was represented in the class of sixty-four, and many were "Hapa" or mixed-race Americans; no one ethnicity was a majority. (Sample last names: Sudjian-Carlisle, Pride-Garcia.) Every child spoke a few lines on the theme "Free to be me." Many spoke of striving for success, and of honoring their friends, teachers and families; some held up inner traits such as generosity and appreciation as goals, while others mentioned careers in professional sports or law or the arts.

Only one mentioned a practical career--engineer--perhaps unsurprisingly, an Asian-American lad--and while it's the time to dream big, it was disconcerting to note the high percentage of African-American lads who mentioned professional football as their dream. As in that other favorite of young dreamers, the entertainment industry, the truth is that a vanishingly tiny number of people actually make a living in the field of professional sports. That is a statement on our culture which needs no elucidation.

My own aspirations at that age were ridiculously low--I recall my "career report" was on aircraft maintenance; why I didn't want to be a pilot like every other normal kid, I have no idea--and aiming high is much better than aiming low or not aiming at all. And so it was gratifying to hear many of the children's aspirations to be a doctor, architect, artist, veterinarian or even--gasp--writer.

Despite the pressures of popular culture, each child held fast to some inner vision; interestingly, girls spoke more often of inner goals than the boys. But most amazingly, this incredibly diverse group of children had no awareness of the uniqueness of their diversity; it was entirely normal to them. They could not know how few places in the world harbor such variety and individualism.

To illustrate this American vision, what better place than Yosemite in spring?

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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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