What do you say to a bright and eager bunch of June graduates, as they prepare to . . . to take the next step on the ladder of life? High school auditoriums, sports arenas, and college campuses are filled with platitudes and cliches this time of year, and it’s not so easy to coin a new one.
Over at Princeton University, where they have been performing the annual exercise for more than 250 years, they don’t do too much better than anyone else. The Princeton Weekly Bulletin — the official university house organ — this year headlined its commencement coverage with a headline gleaned from President Shirley Tilghman’s comments to graduates: “Aim High and Be Bold.” I can imagine some sharp-eyed physics major who is also in ROTC thinking that if he follows that advice, he will always miss.
Princeton’s senior valedictorian offered his classmates a few “words of wisdom,” including the thought that “by bringing a refreshed sense of humor to work every day, we not only will have more fun, but we are more willing to try the hardest things again and again.” Of course that turns out to be a molecular biology major speaking — easy for him, no doubt.
Given the rhetorical challenges of these events, I suspect a lot of potential speakers avoid these ceremonies like everyone but mad dogs and Englishmen avoid the midday sun. For the past several years I have been invited to speak at the senior awards nights at not one but two area high schools. While I have not managed to create a single original thought for these appearances, I still look forward to them immensely. What gives?
The schools are no ordinary high schools. They are West Windsor-Plainsboro High Schools North and South, which our sister paper, the biweekly West Windsor-Plainsboro News, honors with scholarships every year. That brings the invitation to speak ever so briefly — very briefly because there are nearly 100 scholarships presented each year to each senior class.
WW-P students are no slouches. When New Jersey Monthly magazine issues its biannual ranking of high schools, based on such criteria as student test scores and college admissions, as well as teaching time and student-teacher ratios, WW-P usually leaves places like Princeton High and Montgomery in the dust. This year High School South placed second statewide, but the new High School North was inadvertently left out of the ranking. The ratings were re-calculated, errors were found, and the revised listings still showed South in second place, but North in first place.
The top 20 students are kids who would be valedictorian and salutatorian at lots of other places. A perfect 4.0 grade does not guarantee highest honors. Thanks to advanced placement and college courses (often taken at Princeton University) the ranks are filled with students whose averages exceed 4.0.
At the conclusion of the High School South awards ceremonies, I offered the usual “aren’t they amazing” platitude to the principal, Charles Rudnick. They are, he agreed, but what made it even nicer was that — contrary to what some believe — these academic accomplishments are not parent-driven, they are student-driven.
Mentioning the parents brings up the subject that lurks in the background whenever you marvel at the West Windsor-Plainsboro academic record. Yes, it’s true that 30 percent of the school population are the sons and daughters of immigrants, from places like China, India, Japan, and Korea, and Russia. And it’s also true that while everyone bemoans the loss of American manufacturing jobs to the rest of the world, places like West Windsor and Plainsboro are attracting the brainpower from the rest of the world. These WW-P parents are no ordinary immigrants — many are PhDs, MDs, and computer experts.
So like all good immigrant kids everywhere, the WW-P students are expected to do as well as or better than their parents. And meanwhile the melting pot is working full blast. At the WW-P awards ceremonies, a dizzying array of talent walks to and from the stage. The kid with the science scholarship is also in the orchestra; the math guy is on the swim team; the cross country star also sings in the chorus and is one of the top 20 students; one of the National Merit Scholars is a kid who hangs out at Barnes & Noble’s coffee shop on Saturday nights. And a substantial portion of them, you sense, are thinking about who’s going to the prom with whom. Whether you can pronounce their names or not, these are all-American kids.
As he presented the scholarship on behalf of his restaurant, Sunny Garden, Yu-Lien Yen reminisced about his own two children, who had graduated years earlier from West Windsor-Plainsboro High School. And the restaurateur remembered his children’s high school classmate, who had been killed in a car accident. Yen spoke in a thick accent, but his final “words of wisdom” to the graduating class should be repeated from sea to shining sea and throughout middle America: “Be safe.”