The local two-year school, Montgomery College, is affectionately nicknamed "Harvard-on-the-Pike" by some and "M. K." by others. At a recent end-of-the-semester honors ceremony the audience is splendidly diverse: little boys in striped T-shirts ... little girls clutching plastic dolls ... grandparents dressed in their Sunday finery ... mothers holding bouquets for their beloved ... fathers with disposable cameras. Conversations take place in Portuguese, Korean, Hindi, Vietnamese, Spanish, Chinese, and less-recognizable languages.
This is a community college. It's attended by folks who choose to come here and who study hard to improve themselves --- not to party, delay going to work, or make connections with other wealthy drones, and not because their parents forced them to go. Many of the students are already holding down one, maybe two jobs, plus taking care of a family. Some are kids with spikey hair dyed in streaks of red and blue; some are gray or balding; some are overweight, handicapped, or uncosmetic in appearance; some are nervous new immigrants. Some goofed off, weren't focused during high school, made stupid mistakes, got into trouble, and only belatedly have figured out what they want to learn.
But when they cross that stage! Their friends whistle and whoop, the crowd applauds, they shake the hand of a professor, grin, nod ... they've done a good job, and are being recognized for it. Phi Theta Kappa, the junior college scholastic society, inducts a block of kids with strong grades. Others get departmental awards for hard work in math, drama, chemistry, French, physics, sports, business, and a host of other subjects. Some say a few words; the philosophy honoree is told "Don't talk, or we'll be here all night!", so she refrains. Nevertheless, the conclave runs late.
Finally, two are called forward for highest honors. One is a whisp of an Asian girl, smile bigger than she is, who came to this country six years ago. In accented but excellent English she thanks her teachers and her new friends. The other is a tall young man with a shining scalp, totally hairless. He trembles a bit as he comes to the podium and tells his tale: had fun in high school, served in the Marine Corps, then was a lifeguard on the Chesapeake Bay at a state park ... saved some people from drowning but couldn't rescue one eight-year-old boy ... realized that he needed to get back to school ... did so a couple of years ago ... met a nice girl, was getting ready to marry ... and then was diagnosed with acute leukemia.
His cancer is in remission now but he's still hospitalized for more treatment. The doctors are letting him out for a few hours to attend this ceremony, but he can't hug anybody --- too much risk of infection. His voice catches; he seizes the lectern and gets a grip on his emotions, then goes on to finish his brief speech. He's still working on a degree in electronics. The marriage is rescheduled for September. He's confident that he'll make it there.
The audience rises to give him a genuine standing ovation --- proud of him, and of the hundreds of other real people who have been applauded this evening. What a wonderful investment of a community's resources. Bravo to all!
Sunday, May 27, 2001 at 19:03:15 (EDT) = Datetag20010527