05/28/2013 05:39 pm ET Updated Jul 28, 2013

Now That You Have Your High School Diploma, It's Time to Clean Up Your Act

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When our daughter was little we used to go on Sunday walks. That was our church. We took plastic bags with us and filled them with litter from the side of the road, then dumped them in a trash can at a park near our destination downtown. Then we got the newspaper -- remember those? -- and a treat for Katie after some mighty intense negotiations with Dad.

The walk home was just for fun. Dad posed trivia questions to Kate, with the promise of another treat if she answered enough questions correctly -- and yes, she always did. The trivia came from a movie we'd just watched, a trip we'd just taken, whatever.

Good times.

When Katie graduated from high school Saturday she and most of the rest of her friends holed up there afterward for an all-night annual ritual designed to keep the senior class safe until dawn. There was pizza and cotton candy and almost anything else the kids had a hankering for. There was an artist applying temporary tattoos, another artist drawing caricatures, and a hypnotist -- as well as karaoke and lots of other at least somewhat fun games and activities. There were prizes -- cool prizes, big prizes.

My husband and I were part of the army of parents on hand to orchestrate the event, and as the evening wore on we were on trash duty.

Yeah, trash duty.

We wheeled around a big can and tossed the debris the kids had left on the floor. Somewhere around the third half-eaten cup of yogurt left in the middle of the gym for someone else to take care of, it hit me.

What, exactly, had these kids learned in 18 years? Where was all the idealism they'd spewed only a few hours earlier at the big ceremony? We were about to unleash almost 200 creatures on the world, and it was a little embarrassing. Who, exactly, was going to clean up after them?

I'm generalizing here, of course. Some kids -- like Kate -- walked their trash the few feet to a receptacle as they went about their evening, picking up things their friends had left behind while they were at it. Darrell and I were taking a break when one gal walked up to toss her trash in the can in front of us -- and he made a little ceremony out of thanking her. Which was fine. Which struck me as incredible, that now the way you stand out among the rest of your class is by... not littering.

Older folk have been complaining about the younger generations since time began. And to devote this much space to kids who litter strikes me as a bit cranky. But I think there's a point worth making. Which is, the people you work with someday are going to care a lot less about your fancy degree from your impressive college than they will about what it's like to work with you.

Will you be the person who uses up the last bit of coffee and leaves the pot on the burner for someone else to refill? Who takes the last donut from the bakery and doesn't bother to toss the box? Who brings her kids into work on a Saturday morning and lets them leave a trail of destruction for someone else to deal with Monday?

Who cares how much you intend to change the world if someone else has to follow around behind you, changing it back?