The folks at Portland High School made an odd choice for last week’s keynote speaker at the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Chapter of the National Honor Society induction ceremony — me.

As I explained when they called, I was not exactly considered honor society material back in the day. Readers of this column may remember that I spent a lot of fifth grade with my desk in a refrigerator box, and when it came to high school, well, I dropped out.

But the chance to talk to about 50 high school juniors and seniors (including one of my own kids!) who may not be regular newspaper readers was intriguing.

What do you say to a group of kids who not only know more about hard work and public service than I did when I was their age, but also give me a run for my money now?

Excellent speeches were delivered by seniors Marianne Anderson, who spoke on character; Corey Charmichael, on service; Simon Thompson, on leadership; and Tim Webber, on scholarship.

Here’s an excerpt from the worst speech of the night:

“You’ve probably seen that in your lives here at school there are people you just don’t know. Maybe you’re not in the same classes or involved in the same activities. Maybe they do things you don’t approve of, but mostly you just don’t know anything about them and it’s almost like they aren’t there. Like they don’t exist.

“There are going to be a lot more people like that when you leave this place. High school, especially Portland High School, is an unusual community where people from all different backgrounds are forced to come together and interact. You just have to.

“I see it at football games, school plays, music concerts and at the talent show. To you it’s normal, but to me it’s mind-blowing, because it just doesn’t happen anywhere else, even here in Portland.

“When people leave school, they end up surrounding themselves with other people who are just like them. The kind of job you get, your political views, where you go to worship — if you go to worship — all end up sorting you into pockets of people who are just like you.

“This is what we’re missing: You learn from the people around you. You’ve probably seen it already — you learn almost as much from your friends as you do from your teachers and your parents. Those of you who go on to college or the military will see that it’s even more true there.

“Technology is intensifying this isolation. When I was a kid, there were three TV stations, five maybe, depending if you could get UHF. Everybody who watched TV watched the same shows.

“Now, I’m not saying those shows were any good. Ask your parents to explain the concept behind ‘Gilligan’s Island’ or ‘My Mother the Car.’ But there was a shared experience that’s harder to find now.

“With the Internet, people can just gather with other people who already think what they think. They support and reinforce each other. They lash out anonymously at people they don’t know. They write and say things online that they would never say to a real human being who was sitting across the room from them.

“I see this where I work. The newspaper, like this high school, is one of those institutions that tries to serve the whole community. We publish views from all over the political spectrum, and we have a lot of rules about keeping the conversation civil.

“But it’s clear that everyone is getting their information from different sources. People who read the right-wing blogs have one set of facts, and people who read the left-wing blogs have another, and both of them think that they are right and the other side is evil.

“It’s much worse when you move from the letters — which people have to sign with their real names — to the online message boards where they can post anonymously. When some Waynflete kids were blasted recently for writing letters to the editor on the wind power issue, these comments got a lot of attention. But those were nothing compared to the string of vicious comments that appear after almost every story or opinion piece that deals with immigration or race.

“This fragmentation is dangerous. I don’t mean that we should all agree or that both sides are right, or that I don’t have strong opinions about issues. I do, and I want my side to win. But if everyone just talks to the people they agree with, nothing gets done. And if, like me, you want to see things get done, this is a problem.

“The whole idea of progress has been discredited. The idea that we chip away, bit by bit, against the big problems, one generation picking up where the last one left off has been dismissed as weak by one group with its set of facts and some kind of conspiracy to wreck the world by the other side with theirs.

“People are complicated; they’re not just one thing, not a position, an opinion, a skin color or an accent. And when you start thinking about them that way, you’re making the same mistake as those online posters.

“Here is your challenge: In a society that is going to be constantly pulling you apart, sorting you into groups, you’ll have to make an effort to listen to the people who are different from you — and it won’t be easy.

“I wish I could tell you how to do it, but you’re smart. You’ll figure it out.”

 

Greg Kesich is an editorial writer. He can be contacted at 791-6481 or at: [email protected]