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Stearns: Upon Commencing

They tossed mortarboards in the air, stashed diplomas in SUVs and closed the book on college. Then they gathered by the sea - 17 strapping graduates, mostly boys, a few girls, more bottles of beer than I cared to count.

A mother curious about her adult offspring waits for these moments, when she can be, as the anthropologists would have it, a “participant-observer.” I watch as members of this happy band assemble at the summer house, spill clothes on the floor, pitch tents under the pines and array long limbs on mattresses - three to a bed in platonic configurations learned back when they thought college, and co-ed camaraderie, would last forever.

They fish from the bridge, dance on the beach, eat s’mores by moonlight in the hollow of a dune. They laugh a lot as they text messages, upload photos and pass around silly videos on their smartphones. They appear young and enviably carefree, these 22-year-olds.

In a bygone era, such graduates might have married by now, started families, enlisted in the Army, hit the factory floor, or perhaps joined a firm that would employ them for life. They might have wandered around Europe on $20 a day or discovered America in a Volkswagen bus before landing at a place that put a premium on a liberal arts degree.

Today, it’s different. I’m not sure whether it’s better or worse, but emerging from that cocoon called college seems less straightforward than it once was. Twenty-somethings are led to believe that the possibilities are infinite, even if good jobs are scarce. We urge them to pursue their passion, strike out on their own, clear their own path through the thicket. Then we implore them to abandon self-interest and pull together to save the world. Global strife, poverty, hunger, disease, an angry planet agitated by greenhouse gases: hop to it!

It’s a mixed message that would compel almost anyone to swig beer on a beach on a warm, sunny day in June. But the fizzy hiss of pop tops belies a sobering truth: These kids who aren’t really kids understand what’s at stake. They’d like to make the world a better place while also fulfilling hopes and dreams and perhaps having a little fun along the way. That ’s not easy, and they’re daunted, a little scared. You get a whiff of the fear as they talk of jobs, graduate school, or returning home to figure out what’s next.

The camera captures my son and his friends perched on the sand, peering out across the bay. The slant of golden light at day’s end illuminates their faces and casts long shadows on the shoreline. In time, they may look back at these glowing images and marvel. There they are, lingering in that restless borderland between youth and age, between innocence and experience, passports in hand, ready to go. They know it’s a one-way visa, and there’s no going back.

Kathryn Stearns has spent 30 years in journalism as a writer and editor. She is a former member of the Washington Post's editorial board and stepped down as editorial page editor of the Valley News in 2012.
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