Somewhere, deep in the bowels of a New Jersey retirement community, an 88-year-old woman is filled with trepidation as she approaches her mailbox.
It is the same daily dread she has felt since that June afternoon in 1968.
“Is this the day?” she wonders. “Is this the day?”
The letter Mrs. Hannah Pollak so fears would go something like this:
Dear Mrs. Pollak:
It is my unhappy duty to inform you that upon review of your son Sam’s academic performance at Miami Beach Senior High School, we have discovered that a terrible mistake has been made.
“Somehow, Sam’s total lack of any grasp of English, Mathematics, History, Science and even Physical Education escaped our notice until now, and we are asking you to kindly return the diploma we erroneously awarded him in 1968.
Dr. Solomon Lichter,
Miami Beach Senior High School
Mom hasn’t received that letter yet, but she’s well aware that back in ’68, her son was nowhere close to being voted “Most Likely To Succeed.”
With graduation ceremonies going on for most of our local high schools this weekend, it got me to thinking about mine.
If you put a gun to my head (and you’d be surprised how many people say they want to), I couldn’t recall one word from the speeches at that 1968 ceremony.
That’s probably because I wasn’t listening _ a practice to which I adhered in most of my classes.
The whole thing is kind of a blur now, but I do remember sitting with some of my friends at the back of a hot stage obscured by the rest of the graduating class, and hoping it would get over with already.
One guy had a battery-powered fan. Others were playing cards while the ceremony droned on. The only reason we weren’t on cell phones or personal computers was because they hadn’t been invented yet.
The official class of ’68 song was “Up, Up and Away (In My Beautiful Balloon)” by the 5th Dimension. This was to signify that we were confident about rising up in the world and that anything was possible.
But what many of us regarded as our real theme song was The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out Of This Place.
We thought we were so cool, so much smarter than any other generation, and we were going to break all the rules and change the planet for the better.
We didn’t know how good we had it.
“Beach High” was academically among the highest-ranked public schools in Florida. A study in 1969 found that 90 percent of our graduates attended national colleges and universities.
As for me, I was the sports editor of the school newspaper and worked as a sports correspondent for the local paper, the Miami Beach Sun.
As for my academics, I was fully prepared to cut cards with Principal Lichter to decide whether I would graduate. Fortunately, it didn’t quite come to that and I was able to squeak by.
Helping that effort was a lengthy teachers’ strike in my senior year that had us going to school but not expected to learn very much. That, Of course, was just fine with me.
Being a newspaper editor, I spend a good deal of time these days bemoaning the lack of interest in current events among the kids who are graduating this weekend and many of their somewhat older brethren.
But then I think about all that was swimming around me while I was loafing my way through my senior year of high school.
Here are only a few of the major events in 1968: Dr. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. The Vietnam War was raging.
Civil rights heroes were desegregating the South. More than 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Apollo 8 made the first manned orbit of the moon. American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their arms on the podium in a black power salute after winning medals at the Mexico City Olympics. Richard Nixon was elected president of the United States.
And while a much-relieved Hannah Pollak and other members of my family listened to the speeches, several stalwarts of the class of ’68 were playing cards during their high school graduation.
My generation was going to change the world. In retrospect, we did, but I’m far from certain that it has been mostly for the best.
Perhaps this weekend’s graduates will do a better job of it. I certainly hope so.
SAM POLLAK is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.