Jewish World Review June 16, 2003 / 16 Sivan, 5763

Jim Hoagland

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All too prepared for the real world | Iraq, the CIA, Jacques Chirac and other usual suspects get the day off. Graduation season puts domestic and global politics briefly on the back burner even here in Omphalos-on-the-Potomac, the navel of the world.

Focus instead on Angela Harmon, who overcame disability to graduate from Woodrow Wilson Senior High School on Tuesday. In a city where speeches are overpriced at a dime a dozen, the simple message Harmon delivered to her 384 graduating classmates moistened many an eye in the rapt audience at Constitution Hall.

Or consider Andreas Bustamante, who came to Washington from Chile as a child not knowing a word of English. With a fluidity and elegance that would distinguish most speeches delivered in Congress, Bustamante recounted his journey through Wilson High into a new world of opportunity that he now encounters, full force, on his own.

I went for personal reasons to Constitution Hall, the magnificently ornate auditorium near the White House that Wilson High rented for this commencement. I was a proud parent, set to watch my son receive a Wilson diploma and to commemorate an important step in his learning experience.

But I went through my own learning experience with these young students and their parents in a few hours. Across the street, national security types in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building were no doubt grimly debating Code Orange vs. Code Yellow.

But this huge hall was filled to the brim with hope and great expectations — as well as a justified sense of accomplishment by families who somehow had made a beleaguered public education system work for them.

These '03 graduates share an unwieldy legacy from the twilight of their adolescence. They were in class on that September day when terror struck in Manhattan, at the Pentagon and in the skies over Pennsylvania. They witnessed war in Iraq televised from the battlefront, as no other generation before them had. They have every justification to complain, to weep for lost innocence and to demand better of their elders.

But they did no such thing on this day. These kids had their own stories of promises — those made and kept, those they will yet fulfill — to tell to this appreciative audience. Some stories were told simply by the calling of the graduates' names. Here were the children of Vietnamese, Italian, Chinese, Russian and other parents, a United Nations of gowned young Americans walking across a stage for 15 seconds in which their parents and teachers could bask in reflected glory.

Wilson students, however, come predominantly from the inner city. This ceremony had a particular African American story that was told in the unaffected pride and confidence with which young black graduates crossed the stage.

In 1939 the great contralto Marian Anderson was denied use of Constitution Hall for a concert because she was black. That incident sparked protests that shaped the modern civil rights movement and partially transformed American society. Anderson walked in some fundamental sense with the Wilson kids on Tuesday.

Washington is a city where emotion is often manufactured, suppressed or rationalized according to political or career needs. But once in a great while it arises spontaneously. We hear words that move directly from the ears to the brain and to the heart to enrich our thoughts and perhaps our lives.

Those words came in Constitution Hall from Angela Harmon. With the aid of crutches, she struggled to the microphone to speak about the special challenges facing a student with cerebral palsy. She thanked teachers and administrators for their help in getting her there — and then thanked her mother, who adopted Angela when she was a year old. Talk about an American hero.

I couldn't help but think that the struggle, triumph and diversity of this graduating class turns on its head a striking metaphor about the nation's capital contained in "Washington," the late Meg Greenfield's memoir.

Greenfield, a brilliant editor of The Post's editorial page, asserted that "nobody, regardless of station, gets over high school — ever."

Washington, with its circles of current-affairs clubs, debating societies, "freshman" senators, members of "the class of '74," its defined terms of work punctuated by group Christmas, spring and summer vacations and all the rest, is an especially clear prolongation of high school's social ordering, she wrote.

But Wilson High suggests the metaphor needs updating. Along the journey to Constitution Hall, these students have seen the fading national commitment to public education written in their school's halls and on the administrators' faces. They have struggled against the consequences of illness, crime, drugs and other dangers to this day of success.

They have learned finally that high school increasingly is a reflection of the life they will find outside its doors and not, alas, vice versa.

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