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Parting wisdom

June 13, 1986

``The government is unresponsive to the needs of the little man,'' wrote Woody Allen in ``Speech to the Graduates.'' ``Under 5 feet 7, it is impossible to get your congressman on the phone.'' The commencement address is perhaps the most parodied of literary forms; a fair proportion of these speakers began by apologizing for even giving one. This year's graduates received their share of the predictable fare: A commencement is a beginning. Education never stops. Grave challenges lie ahead.

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But after all, there is no new wisdom, only fresh expression, and the class of '86 received its share of this as well. One suspects it was worth putting off vacation for another day to hear composer Virgil Thomson reflect on his life in music, or author Robert Coles recall a black first-grader in the South who prayed for her white tormentors. Lesley Stahl, White House correspondent for CBS News, told graduates of Gallaudet College in Washington that ``It's wrong to reach for too much too soon. You probably won't be recognized for the next ten years, but that's OK because you can use that time to learn the small things.''

Some excerpts follow; more will appear on Monday. Robert Coles, author and psychiatrist

I remember watching a little child who was six years old, beginning her education even as you are completing yours. She was trying to get into an elementary school in New Orleans. The school was totally boycotted, so she went to school all by herself. She had to be escorted to school by federal marshalls. Every day at 8:30 in the morning there were several hundred people waiting for her, telling her they were going to kill her, and swearing at her with every word imaginable, and at 2:30 in the afternoon when she left school the mob was waiting for her again.

. . . One day her school teacher who taught her alone told me this: She saw this little girl stop at the front of the mob and she saw from the school building that she was speaking to them, and so when the girl came into the first grade classroom the teacher asked her what she had said to these people. The girl said that she hadn't said anything to them. The teacher said, ``I saw you say something to them.'' Her name was Ruby, this little girl. ``I saw you say something to them. I saw you stop and I saw your lips move.'' Ruby said, no, she had said nothng to them; and the teacher persisted, reminded her of what she had seen, and Ruby said, ``Oh, I stopped only to pray for them.''

. . . Finally I asked her what she said in those prayers, and she told me this. She said, ``I always say the same thing.'' And I said, ``Ruby, what is it?'' . . . I wanted to know, and she told me. ``I always say `Please God, forgive those people, because they don't know what they're doing.' '' (Macalester College, May 24) Kurt Bentley Mack, graduating senior

Since age five, I was voluntarily bused from my Boston neighborhood to a small affluent town outside the city. I was one of a few hundred black children who escaped the failing Boston Public Schools. My suburban educational experience ignited my intellectual curiosity and ultimately helped to motivate me to seek a college education at Bowdoin. Entering in 1982 I finally didn't have to take a bus to get to school.

So here I am, the first of 11 brothers and sisters to graduate from college. This degree is not mine alone; I share it with my family and community. It is they who made the sacrifices: They marched in the streets, they faced the Mace fired at them by the police, and they won the court cases which enabled me to acquire my precious drop of education. Life for my mother ``ain't been no crystal staircase.'' (Bowdoin College, May 24) Eleanor Holmes Norton, law professor, former head of EEOC