“When you were born, they looked at you and said…”

The academic year limps to its grave, ashamed. May brings commencements with long-winded speeches, hung-over students, the swinging of ceremonial maces. Oblivious meatheads all saunter toward debt; they’re destined to bung up society’s drains. The terrible truths are recorded by bloggers, decried in the op-eds, and whispered in lounges: biased curricula, underpaid adjuncts, incurious students, a farcical pageant of evil and wrong.

Is that how you feel about graduation season? Then here are three people I’d like you to meet.

If you can’t imagine a household where books were forbidden, then Kay has a story to tell you. As a child, Kay was told that reading would poison her mind; then she was shipped from England to Pakistan and forced into an abusive marriage. But, as those of us who know her have discovered, Kay is a true force of nature. Innately rebellious, selectively shy, Kay overcame her unlucky beginnings to become valedictorian, honor society president, and winner of national awards. She’s now a teacher in training, and I envy the Maryland schoolkids who will share in her passion for Shakespeare. Kay officially graduated last winter; tomorrow she’ll walk and receive her diploma, rebuking the fools who forbade her to read.

Utterly atypical of his high-strung generation, my cousin Mike is a perceptive writer in the making. While his classmates sought internships in Manhattan offices, Mike pulled on his steel-toed work boots and learned how to repair cast-iron stoves, stack chicken cages, and tar driveways. For much of his college career, Mike worked as a janitor on the same campus where he studied history, always eager to find something worth observing in places his peers were inclined to ignore. Next Saturday, Mike will graduate from Rutgers. His decency, work ethic, and easy composure put him way ahead of his classmates—and some of us, too, who are quite a bit older.

For more than 20 years, I’ve watched Dave seek his fortune on the west coast and live through history as a Wall Street techie during the dot-com boom. While working as a reporter and raising two daughters, Dave finished his college degree. When he and I met, we were shmoes from New Jersey with local horizons; the notion that we’d later enjoy discussing Constantine and Charlemagne would have confused—and probably horrified—our limited, 16-year-old selves. On Sunday, when Dave graduates with honors from Villanova, I’ll be cheering from the bleachers. We’ve seen, through the years, many others burn out; Dave, now in grad school, just keeps burning brighter.

Our universities have problems, but let’s not pretend we can really perfect them; we ought to remember that fixing a problem is bound to make others arise. We can only teach well, take pride as the people around us succeed, and maybe remember what Alcuin said:

Being always eager to carry out your wishes faithfully, I have sent back to you this dear pupil of mine as you asked. Please look after him well until, if God so wills, I come to you myself. Do not let him wander about unoccupied or take to drink. Give him pupils, and give strict instructions that he is to teach properly. I know he has learned well. I hope he will do well, for the success of my pupils is my reward with God.

Even in his grim and troubled era, a great teacher knew what we often forget: that flawed institutions can still make us more than we are.

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