High school grads renew hope for better future

On Friday afternoon at the Orleans Arena, my daughter graduated from high school. She wore a white cap and gown, signifying that she had earned an honors diploma. She also wore a golden sash, reflecting her status as one of Shadow Ridge High School's three valedictorians.

She stood before several thousand people and made a speech. Family and friends attended the ceremony, cheering for a 17-year-old girl who had reached the summit of achievement in the Clark County School District.

I'm boasting, of course. I shouldn't do that, I know, but I hope I'll be forgiven in this instance. I'm proud of my daughter, but it's a feeling I share with the parents of 13,708 other Clark County public school students who received diplomas last week.

Graduating from high school is a considerable achievement regardless of what color gown you wear or whether there's a sash draped over your shoulder. This community -- often indifferent to the needs of kids -- has produced 13,708 high school graduates, many of whom will become our next generation of business and civic leaders.

These graduates enter an adult world beset by crises.

International tensions are running very high. The United States occupies Iraq and exchanges hostile words with Iran. Middle East peace remains elusive. Terrorists are a constant threat. African nations are plagued by poverty, disease and violence. Mexico is a war zone between police and drug traffickers.

The U.S. economy is in sorry shape, stricken by home foreclosures, $4 gasoline and a lack of political will to fix it. Rising health care costs have left 50 million Americans uninsured.

Natural disasters are wreaking havoc around the globe, leaving thousands dead and destitute as tin-pot dictators refuse humanitarian aid from other countries. Climate change is starting to reveal its devastating effects.

There's plenty to despair about, but my daughter's high school graduation gave me hope. In her valedictory speech, she quoted Robert F. Kennedy, who was gunned down 40 years ago this month while campaigning for president.

"All of us might wish at times that we lived in a more tranquil world, but we don't," Kennedy said. "And if our times are difficult and perplexing, so are they challenging and filled with opportunity."

Those words rang true in 1968 and they ring true today. Rather than despair, these high school graduates have the opportunity to triumph where previous generations have failed.

Read the newspaper on a regular basis and it doesn't take long to understand that there are plenty of troubled kids in this country for whom crime, not school, is the primary feature of their lives. But when I look at my daughter, her friends and acquaintances, I don't fear seeing their mugshots on the evening news.

In fact, pride is not the dominant feeling I have when I consider my daughter's academic achievements. The dominant feeling is awe.

Consider this: My daughter never received a B on a report card. Not once, from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Now, to be fair, this was a respectable but unspectacular achievement in elementary and middle school, where the demands placed on kids are fairly modest. But in order to become a valedictorian, a high school student must master a far more rigorous academic program.

Advanced Placement courses are tough, offering students a legitimate taste of college-level work. It was common for my daughter to do homework for six, seven, even eight hours a day. She often stayed up very late, snagging just a few hours of sleep before getting up for classes that started at 7 a.m. In her senior year, members of her AP calculus class often gathered to collaborate on mind-numbingly complex homework and prepare for tests. Hour after tedious hour, they would run the numbers and compare notes.

This, I can tell you straight, was not how I spent most of my time in high school, and I was an above-average student.

I am awed by my daughter's achievement because of the time and effort she put in, but also because she was self-motivated. My wife and I always expected her to do well in school and created a home environment conducive to learning, but we would have been happy with B's as long as she made a genuine effort. It was her choice to become a super-student -- a valedictorian.

She is far from alone in exhibiting this level of commitment. The Clark County School District recognized 167 valedictorians and 48 salutatorians last week, and handed out 2,378 honors diplomas. The parents of all these kids certainly can tell a similar story.

What does this all mean? It means there's good reason to believe in a better future. These graduates have the potential to one day conquer the noxious problems menacing our nation and world today.

"Few will have the greatness to bend history itself," Robert Kennedy said, "but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation."

Geoff Schumacher (gschumacher@reviewjournal.com) is publisher of Las Vegas CityLife, an alternative newsweekly owned by the same company as the Review-Journal. He also is the author of "Sun, Sin & Suburbia: An Essential History of Modern Las Vegas" and "Howard Hughes: Power, Paranoia & Palace Intrigue." His column appears Sunday.