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A night of diplomas, diversity

Muhammad Waqar, Avi Wolfman-Arent, Yiran Xia, Victoria Sandoval, Jacqueline Orellana-Flores, Elizabeth Packer, Ramona Singh, Anuja Shah, Mayra Ramos, Emily-Kate Hannapel, Natasha Perez, Samir Paul, Ekta Taneja, Linden Vongsathorn, Michael Tsai, Nardos Teklebrahan, Matiwos Wondwosen ...

I went to a high school graduation Monday and a United Nations meeting broke out.

The commencement was my daughter Natalie's, the high school was Montgomery Blair in Silver Spring, Md. There were some 700 kids receiving their diplomas, and as I sat there for two hours listening to each one's name pronounced, I became both fascinated and touched by the stunning diversity - race, religion, ethnicity - of the graduating class. I knew my daughter's school was diverse, but I had no idea it was this diverse.

The names above, which I just pulled from the graduation book, were typical of her entire class, which included exactly five people named "Smith." In my high school in Minnesota it seemed like there were only five people not named "Smith."

My daughter told me that the names in her class can be so difficult to pronounce that for graduation the school had all the students write their names phonetically on a card so the announcer would not mangle them in front of family and friends.

There is a lot to be worried about in America today: a war in Iraq that is getting worse not better, an administration whose fiscal irresponsibility we will be paying for for a long time, an education system that is not producing enough young Americans skilled in math and science, and inner cities where way too many black males are failing. We must work harder and get smarter if we want to maintain our standard of living.

But if there is one reason to still be optimistic about America it is represented by the stunning diversity of the Montgomery Blair class of 2006. America is still the world's greatest human magnet. We are not the only country that embraces diversity, but there is something about our free society and free market that still attracts people like no other. Our greatest asset is our ability to still cream off not only the first-round intellectual draft choices from around the world but the low-skilled, high-aspiring ones as well, and that is the main reason that I am not yet ready to cede the 21st century to China. Our Chinese will still beat their Chinese.

This influx of brainy and brawny immigrants is our oil well - one that never runs dry. It is an endless source of renewable human energy and creativity. Congress ought to stop debating gay marriage and finally give us a framework to maintain a free flow of legal immigration.

What is so striking about Blair is that it is just a neighborhood public high school. It was not designed to be diverse. Yes, it has some magnet programs, but for the most part it just reflects its surroundings - about one-third black, one-third Hispanic and one-third Noah's Ark of everyone else.

As I mingled with the other parents afterward, waiting for our kids to emerge from the ceremony, I found myself at one point surrounded by families in which no one was speaking English.

The only familiar voice that came through the din was one that made me laugh - an African-American mom, gripping her child's diploma, saying: "This diploma is mine! I'm keeping this!" She said she had worked as hard as her kid for this day. Bless her heart, as I am sure she spoke for many parents.

It is hard to watch a graduation like this and not think about our enemies in Iraq and Afghanistan - the Taliban, Islamo-totalitarians like bin Laden and Zarqawi, and the retrograde regimes that support them. Their whole mind-set is about how to purify their world from "the other," from diversity, from "infidels." With enough brutality, they may win in Iraq. I still hope not.

But they will never win the future - because as soon as their oil wells run dry, their societies will be as barren, bland and unproductive as their deserts.

Our oil wells, by contrast, will still be pumping. They're right there, hiding in plain sight, in the Blair commencement book:

... Yueyang Li, Kenia Lopez-Reyes, Lucy Fromyer, Raya Steinberg, Zahra Gordon, Sreva Ghosh, Juan-Jesus Louis, Yendil Furcal, Yenusa Eke, Sofonias Frezghi, Yohanes Dejen, Edra Comegys-Brisbane, Yoel Castillio-Ortiz, Elijah Zuares, Placido Zelaya, Mimi Zou. And Jessica Smith.

© 2006, New York Times News Service