Every commencement speaker tells graduates the same thing. They are the future; they have received an outstanding education that has prepared them to make the world a better place; “the world is all before them, where to choose.” And by the time the graduates walk off the stage, greedily clutching those empty tubes that pretend to hold their diplomas, they have forgotten every word of encouragement.
Except maybe not this year.
The class of 2020 is different. They began the fall semester excited to have reached this milestone. They had tackled the alphabet soup of standardized tests that would determine their futures – ACTs, SATS, GREs, MCATs, LSATS – and they waited expectantly for their results. They struggled against the early onset of senioritis and prevailed – mostly. They planned proms and yearbooks and senior trips. They toured campuses, sported T-shirts emblazoned with eagles and owls, tigers and panthers, a longhorn and a leprechaun. They planned spring break. But they never planned that it would go on forever minus the beaches and bottomless drinks.
Who could have imagined the last few months? We left campus two days early because of covid-19 and expected to teach online for a week past spring break. That was over 80 days ago. The semester is over, exams are done, grades are in. All online. But what did they learn? Under the best of circumstances, students remember what they need for the test and then, magically, it all disappears. Unless the course is in their major. Then they retain way more. We hope.
But I’m not talking about formulas and soliloquies here. What did they learn about commitment, adaptation, resilience, humility, gratitude? These are the lessons that will carry them forward into this “brave new world,” whatever that means, after the curves flatten and the face masks are no longer de rigueur.
We wonder if we’ll ever shake hands again, cuddle, eat in a restaurant, go to a movie, receive communion. I wonder if we’ll go back to being indifferent toward the supermarket cashier, the person who sweeps up after we get a haircut, the FedEx driver. I wonder if we’ll continue thanking first responders, even after the 7:00 p.m. bell-ringing, pot-banging, hand-clapping rituals stop. I wonder if we’ll stop saying hello to the neighbor we occasionally pass on the street during an evening walk. I wonder if we’ll continue supporting the mom & pop businesses that fed us curbside. I wonder if we’ll continue being grateful that we have jobs, even if working from home is not as fun as it may sound, when so many others have been furloughed permanently. I wonder if kids will continue creating inspiring sidewalk-chalk messages, and virtual DIY concerts and performances, professional and amateur, will continue entertaining us. I wonder if television commercials will continue being sensitive and even meaningful to watch. I wonder if John Krasinski will continue finding Some Good News in all of us, by all of us, for all of us.
I wonder if the powers-that-be will learn from experience and not return to business as usual once the threat passes. The pandemic exposed serious weakness in our system – in systems all over the world – on every level. We have our opinions about how the federal government responded, but that isn’t the only sector that revealed vulnerabilities. The corona virus does not discriminate, but it made it abundantly clear that serious inequities exist in health care, education, employment, and housing. Race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, inextricably linked in American society, dramatically exacerbated the situation. Children in under-funded, underserved schools do not have access to online resources once classes were cancelled. They have no access to meals they generally eat at school. Parents cannot give up their hourly-wage essential jobs to stay at home to supervise and, often, teach their children. Several generations living in cramped quarters does not allow for social distancing between individuals and makes the more vulnerable among them even more defenseless.
The Class of 2020 are the children of 9/11. They came into a world irrevocably transformed, and now they are stepping into another world no one could have imagined. So they got car parades and yard signs and virtual proms and commencement ceremonies instead of the real thing. On a certain level, this was better. After all, when else would they have heard Malala Yousafzai speak.
The commencement message, as usual, is one of tenacity, courage, determination. But this time, there’s a sense of urgency unheard before. Covid-19 changed us, but good may yet come of it. Just as the 9/11 babies joined the military to protect their country, perhaps these graduates will seek degrees in research, education, computer technology, or public policy. Perhaps they will dedicate their lives to protecting their country from another pandemic.