Parting wisdom

``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.

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

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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

I do not come to rail against your generation for not being like mine. . . . I reject the notion that complacency has paralyzed the young. In plain fact, this generation has not been handed its issues on a platter of wonderful causes. Less has been given you, and more will be expected. For it is no accident that the student activism of the 1960s and 1970s was played out against an expanding economy. I wonder if the students of my generation would have been as open to their multiple causes if they had had the college debt burden that is characteristic even of many middle-income students today. I wonder if the activist students would have been as active if the economy of those times had been as problematic as that which greets you today. . . . (Haverford College, May 18) Frances Moore Lapp'e, world hunger activist and author

[As] I began to focus my life on the economic and the political causes of world hunger, I began to see that the economic and political world that human beings had constructed indeed paralleled the natural ecology, that we are ultimately interconnected, and once I began to see this, then I began to realize that the fact that we live in a world with 700 million people facing hunger today means that we are all threatened. . . . I realized that I was part of a world community. One facing a common challenge and a common threat. . . . (Macalester, May 24) Bruce Babbitt, governor of Arizona

[After law school] I went to Washington to see where I might make a difference. I joined the war on poverty and was sent to Austin, Texas, to organize community action programs. I traveled the South and the West working with neighborhood groups to start Head Start programs and job training and legal services and health care for the poor. And I was sure that, like in Selma, we could eliminate racism and injustice in a single majestic stroke.

Instead, I spent two years re-learning the truth about history -- that real change comes slowly and incrementally, and that laws alone cannot change the heart and soul of people. . . . We work for progress when we work to change a single person. And that is a task beyond none of us.

And I remember, in particular, one Saturday. I was in a little town in Arkansas meeting with a group of county commissioners about a plan to use the Head Start program to integrate the schools. One old guy was sitting there, legs up on his desk, brass spittoon at his side, staring out a window into a field with a Civil War statue. And he said to me: ``Son, the last time you fellas came down here was in 1933. It didn't change anything then and it won't change anything now.''

But, of course, it did. And it did, not so much because of politicians and laws, but because of the willingness of ordinary citizens to do extraordinary things at important times. . . .

It often takes more courage to brave the little things than to take the heroic, public step. I was thinking the other day, for some reason, about the second person to fly solo across the Atlantic. I mean the guy who did it after Lindbergh. And I thought -- that's the hero. It's one thing to risk something for greatness. But it's the one who made it commonplace without the fame who deserves our more practical gratitude. I suppose I come out today for a sort of practical greatness. (Claremont McKenna College, May 18)

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