Go get 'em, class of '82!
Once again it is the season for commencement speeches. A special haze seems to fill the air, and certain ideas are found to be free-floating everywhere, like particularly fuzzy species of pollen.
The commencement speech, let us concede, is not one of your extra-rigorous intellectual exercises. Its function is as prescribed as the locker-room pep talk, from which it does not substantially differ. ''Go get 'em, gang'' is the basic message.
The early returns on commencement '82 are in, and they follow form. The graduates at Mount Holyoke heard the classic commencement line: This is a time of ''uncertainty and opportunity,'' and ''one cannot exist without the other.'' In the same mood, the departing seniors at Middlebury were advised to ''take chances'' by Felix Rohatyn, a New York investment banker.
Graduating classes are always being invited to rejoice in their ''uncertainty'' and ''take chances'' by those who no longer need to do either.
At Vassar, Archibald Cox freely predicted that 1983 was going to be ''a critical year,'' though he was sure the class of '82 could handle it.
The confidence expressed in the Younger Generation on commencement day meaures 11 on a scale of 10.
Veteran commencement-day watchers--for whom special medals for valor should be struck--maintain that the art form has not changed since the first class left Plato's academy, though occasionally an orator will try for originality. This year's banality fighter is the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who delivered the commencement address at Fordham in verse (''similar to the form used by Robert Burns''). Mr. Heaney explained: ''I didn't think I could say what I had to say in prose. . . . In verse you can be formal and say serious things with a lighter touch.''
The rhymed address began: ''Inspire me, then, didactic muse,/ Beyond cliches and pompous views.''
A poignant photograph of Mr. Heaney in the New York Times showed him as he ''spoke with Phyllis Zagano, an assistant communications professor, through a window that wouldn't open.'' We prefer not to read the scene as symbolic, believing that Mr. Heaney got through to Assistant Professor Zagano, and everybody else, with his argument that ''what will survive of us is love.''
If Mr. Heaney is the speaker of the year, Jessie Ryan is surely the graduate of the year. At the age of 98, she received her high school diploma in Madison Heights, Mich. ''What's more, I plan to keep on studying,'' Mrs. Ryan took the occasion to announce. Her favorite subject, naturally, is history.
The commencement day no-show of the year is Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara. Unlike Benny Goodman and James Earl Jones, he could not make it to receive his honorary degree from Yale on a day when the sky came down in buckets , soaking all the poor little whiffenpoofs. This marked the first time in 23 years it rained on a Yale commencement parade. Pressing business was the Archbishop's excuse. But how did he know? Those Brazilian weather forecasters!
Commencement speakers are partial to figures of speech. Our nomination for the metaphor of '82 goes to George Plimpton. Speaking at Stonehill, Mr. Plimpton compared graduation to a huge pigeon coop that suddenly opens up, releasing hordes of young pigeons across the land. Like video space invaders maybe, George?
Perhaps the secret fear that one of these young pigeons might take over one's own roost is what makes so many commencement speakers around so uneasy. A recent New Yorker cartoon shows an orator winding down thus: ''One final note, then, as we wish you all Godspeed. Those of us now inside academia most heartily encourage those of you outside academia to stay outside academia.''
In fact, '82 shapes up as a better-than-average year for commencement speeches. An admirable concern for peace keeps getting voiced. As for those standard fuzzy-pollen ideas, the students are ready to forgive almost anything. It all translates into the happy sound of a slightly rusty campus gate swinging open. Nothing sounds too bad to the other half of the audience either--those folks standing around with dazed smiles (and broken safety nets) known as parents.