Every spring folks can be seen patiently waiting on weekends in thinly wooded areas with binoculars around their necks. Is some rare bird due to fly in at any moment from the south? Not at all. These are the commencement-speaker watchers, standing guard at the edges of American campuses in the hope of spotting the first of the species for the season.
Once a commencement-speaker watcher could relax until June, then stroll into position on a fine summer's day in mid-month, confident that he or she would be in plenty of time for the featured sighting of the year. Now, with colleges finishing term earlier and earlier - thanks no doubt to improved methods of teaching - commencement day comes almost before the student body finds time to pack away the old skis.
April had barely turned to May when we made our own first sighting. Lesley Stahl, CBS White House correspondent, advanced upon the graduates of Pennsylvania State University with her proverbs and Polonius variations all properly in place.
Commencement-speaker watchers maintain that first sightings are important because so often they establish - like the first rosebud - whether a bumper year is in prospect.
Miss Stahl, to judge from the excerpts we have read, is a fair harbinger for 1983. Commencement speeches generally get to their point in the sentences that begin, ''My earnest wish . . .'' and, ''Beware . . .'' Miss Stahl told the Penn State seniors: ''My earnest wish is that you do not become a flash in the pan. Beware of easy and early success. In fact, hope that you aren't discovered for the first 10 years of your career.''
So the keynote has been sounded, and 1983, if all proceeds according to form, will go down in commencement-speech history as The Year of the Late Bloomer.
We do not know how Miss Stahl would have felt at 21, sitting in the audience, being told to put it all off until she turned 30. But a lot of us who respected her Earnest Wish before she wished it and triumphantly got nowhere in our 20s were heartened.
Certainly no more revolutionary advice has thundered among the mortarboards since William F. Buckley told Harvard seniors, in effect, ''Stay here. College is much better than the real world. You'd be crazy to leave'' - thus starting the stampede toward graduate schools that has persisted ever since.
If, like pollen, commencement sentiments get in the air and disseminate, we may assume that Miss Stahl's endorsement of the Late Bloomer can do nothing but good for the presidential candidacy of Alan Cranston and the baseball career of Gaylord Perry - not to mention the films of George Burns.
But moving beyond particular applications, we earnestly wish that Miss Stahl's Earnest Wish is read as a general sermon on patience - an astonishing virtue for Americans to recommend to one another when you think about it. After all, impatience with things-as-they-are has been taken to lie at the very core of our native idealism. How do you make progress unless you itch for it - unless you just can't wait?
No good American has ever really believed Aesop's hare lost the race - until lately. Perhaps Miss Stahl's case for the late-blooming tortoise - to mix a metaphor - reflects a new mood. Are we learning in the '80s that there are no shortcuts to disarmament or to economic recovery or to cleaning up the environment? Or even to education - the thing that takes place just offstage from a commencement speech.
We're talking about an annual incantation. We're talking about rhetoric. But maybe the commencement speakers of '83 will be worth waiting for - behind the campus elms, with binoculars - if they can help persuade this country (of all countries) to give the slower tempos a chance.
And let's make it snappy.