Dear Class of 2020,
To be honest (and I’m sure there are many adults who would rudely tell you the same thing), my graduation day wasn’t one of the most significant milestones in my life. As a teenager who hated my school and couldn’t wait to get away from my town and parents, it was actually one of the happiest days of my eighteen years because that meant I was out of there. I don’t remember the speeches. I don’t remember who I sat next to. But I do remember perfect, sunny Michigan weather as we sat on the football field waiting to walk across the stage.
And regardless of how you feel about your school, classmates, family, and high school experience, I’m sorry. I’m sorry that you were robbed. I’m sorry that you don’t get closure. I’m sorry that you are missing the bookend to your K-12 education. It isn’t fair. It will never stop being not fair.
This moment will define you in the way so many moments of the last 18-19 years have defined you.
You were born in the aftermath of 9/11. Your parents watched the Twin Towers fall on national television. Some chose to heed the call to serve to defend our country and left for a foreign land in the months before and following your birth. All of your parents decided that even with the apparent threat of terror, you were still worth bringing into this world.
As a result of 9/11 and the political decisions following it, you have never known a country not at war and some of you will choose to fight in a war that was started before you were born. And regardless of your feelings about war, you hold tightly to those convictions because you love your country and those in it.
Because of 9/11 you have never known what it is like to walk a loved one to the gate in an airport, greet them as they come off the plane, or walk through airport security without taking off your shoes. For your parents, this was their normal before the world temporarily came to a stop in 2001. And like their generation did with terrorism, you will be finding a new normal in the wake of global pandemic.
In many ways, you were already survivors.
You have survived years of lockdown drills and some of you have lost friends and classmates to violence that never should have walked through your school’s front doors.
You’ve seen anxiety and depression sky rocket in your friends and even yourself as you all navigate a world full of social and cultural pressures you have not been equipped to deal with.
You lived through two economic collapses before entering adulthood, the most recent one happening as you prepare to embark on the next step after high school graduation. It is changing long-held college plans, forcing a re-examination of career goals, and leaving you with an uncertainty many of you have never known.
The senior year that you planned did not end the way you spent four years dreaming it would end. Some of you missed spring break trips, you missed your senior prom, many of you will miss a traditional graduation, and graduation parties and trips will have to be postponed.
All of this is true, but…
You were born in the dawn of a new century. You were some of the first to be born after the Y2K hysteria and you are digital natives. You’ve never known a world without internet or widespread cell phone use.
While adults complain about your attachment to your digital devices, over the last couple months they have become your lifeline to friends and others who are locked in social isolation. As digital natives you have used social media to spread the word for social activism, start businesses, and meet like-minded people from around the globe.
I’ve watched you care for your fellow humans, at home and abroad. I’ve watched you learn about the planet and show a passion for change that most adults in your lives have lost. I’ve watched you pick each other up, dust each other off, and face challenges together. I’ve listened to far too many of my fellow adults talk about “kids these days,” presenting a bleak picture that doesn’t match what I have seen in my classroom and from my colleagues around the country.
Regardless of your family’s politics, you were alive to experience the first black president. And regardless of any evidence to the contrary, you will get to witness the inauguration of the first woman president, eventually.
COVID-19 will change your life and define your generation in even more ways than 9-11 defined mine, but I also believe that it will positively transform your generation in ways that 9-11 failed to do for me and my peers.
The world needed to change and now you get to be a part of creating the world that you want to live in. Create something new. Find new ways to complete old tasks. Design new careers that fit your passions. Gently lead your elders and show them a better way.
Live a great story. Life is going to continue to throw curveballs that are beyond your control, but you get to write the story of how you handled those curveballs. Benjamin Franklin was quoted as saying “Either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” You have the tools to do both.
Dearest seniors, you have been handed a curveball that none of the adults in your life have ever had to deal with. We are mourning with you and we are hurting for you. But we also believe in you. We believe in your passion. We believe in your resilience. We believe in the future that you are able to create with this seemingly impossible blank slate fate has handed you.
Congratulations and Godspeed.
A teacher who believes in you.