To the Graduating Class of 2020,
I’m not here to waste your time, so let’s not beat around the bush.
You’re not graduating from high school in the way you’ve spent the last dozen or so years anticipating. You’re not seated in an auditorium, gym, or park, your family, friends, and community crowded around you, happy to share in this day of great achievement.
Instead, you are ending your high school journey in ways never imagined. Sitting in cars in drive-through lines, accepting diplomas without handshakes and hugs, passing through town in a parade of vehicles. Or maybe your senior year is ending virtually, via Zoom or something like that. If your school is near a lake, maybe you’re in a procession of boats, ready to finish high school away from land.
I’ve seen a million other ways graduations are being conducted, as well. They all demonstrate how much you mean to your teachers, your families, and your communities. Each is an effort to turn lemons into lemonade. I hope you appreciate that. But I also know that for the most part, nothing can replace missing out on what you had imagined for so long.
It’s ok to grieve that loss, and I hope you do so in a healthy way.
I say “in a healthy way” because the world needs you to be healthy. I’ll address this more in a bit, but it’s important for you to realize that you are leaving high school at the most pivotal time in U.S. history since perhaps the Great Depression. Globally, the way humans live is changing due to the pandemic, and here at home, the true spirit of revolution is in the air for the first time in a long, long time.
Whether you know it or not, you have already begun the hard work of effecting change by successfully navigating your way through the most difficult year of education in modern times. Some of you have become role models for others by wearing face masks and demonstrating safe physical distancing. Others have attended protests, donated money, or had hard conversations with family members about racism in recent weeks.
You’re already doing the work. Please don’t stop. More on that later, too.
I’ve been thinking about the sort of advice I’d share with someone graduating from high school at this time. After all, my own daughter graduates tomorrow. At the same time, I’ve thought quite a bit about the stuff I wasn’t told when I graduated back in 1992, and I was surprised to find a lot of overlap between those two categories.
Here’s what I’ve come up with.
1. Expect the unexpected.
Congratulations! You’ve already learned this one. If you have managed to live through the last three months without coming to an understanding that life doesn’t care about your plans, you haven’t been paying attention. If that’s the case, it’s time to wake up before you get left behind. Harsh, I know, but but there’s plenty that’s much harsher.
2. You’re not done learning.
In years past, this advice was given in a mostly academic sense. Go to college or a trade school. Learn an instrument. When you’re middle-aged, learn a new skill. Stuff like that. While I agree that this is all well and good, it’s not what I’m getting at.
The sort of learning I have in mind is difficult, uncomfortable, and severely lacking in our country. You need to learn about the experiences of others. You need to scrape away the polish of how things appear to be, discover the way they really are, and figure out why they are that way. Read books that challenge your perspectives, and engage in debate with people you disagree with. If they’d rather yell than debate, find someone else to talk to. At least you tried.
3. Do the hard work.
This ties into learning, but I want to talk about it a little more.
When you find yourself challenged by what you’re learning, don’t look for the easy way out so you can scuttle back to your comfort zone. Dive deeper, live in your discomfort, and figure out what’s going on there. Discovering your own discomfort and examining it often leads to empathy, and the world needs more of that.
4. Ask “Why?” five times.
This is part of the hard work I mentioned.
When we’re confronted with problems, we tend to ask “Why?” one time and move on after dealing with what we find. As you graduate from high school and move on to jobs, trade schools, college, and whatever else is ahead, I challenge you and ask you to challenge others to ask “Why?” five times.
Get to the root of the problems you face. Answering the first “Why?”, solving that, and then calling it a job well done is exactly the mindset that has backed our country into the corner it’s in now. Revolutions are built on asking “Why?” again and again and again and again. The facade disappears, and the systemic stranglehold is exposed. Once discovered, the difficult struggle of loosening it can begin.
Not going beyond the first “Why?” breeds complacency, apathy, and sloth. It enables systems that abuse power and oppress the weak.
5. Words have power.
When I was a kid, I hated being told, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” If this was true, why did I feel like a lesser human when peers called me poor, ugly, and stupid?
Words, in fact, can do far more damage than sticks and stones ever imagined. Physical wounds most often heal, scar tissue growing in stronger than what was once there. But the shrapnel wounds left by words can’t be cleaned out and stitched over. They remain for months, years, even decades.
You have the power to either lift someone up or tear someone down every time you open your mouth to speak. The person you’re talking to has that same power over you.
Don’t ever forget that.
6. Don’t neglect your mental health.
We are in the midst of a global pandemic that is creating mental health issues at a far greater rate than it is inflicting physical health problems. Mental trauma is occurring across all ages, races, and genders in a way that hasn’t been experienced in modern history.
You cannot do what every graduating class and every generation before you has done. You need to make your mental health and the mental health of others as much of a priority as physical health.
I lost over 20 years of my creative life to anxiety and depression. Finally deciding to do something about it, I sought counseling, and within a year, I’d written the first draft of my first novel.
The stigma around mental health needs to die a quick death.
You aren’t crazy if you see a counselor. Taking medication for anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems isn’t a sign of weakness anymore than taking an antibiotic when you have a sinus infection. And seeking mental health support at times of social upheaval doesn’t make you a snowflake. Snowflakes melt, but you will come out the other side stronger because you took care of yourself.
7. Everything is political, and there’s no such thing as neutral.
I originally had these two separated, but they’re so intertwined that I’ll address them together.
One of my heroes is the historian and activist Howard Zinn. If you’ve never read his work, I highly recommend it. Start with his essay, “The Spirit of Rebellion,” or dive right in by reading “A People’s History of the United States.”
Anyway, one of the phrases he’s known for is, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” It’s also the title of one of his books.
Society is like a train, Zinn says. It’s in motion, and there’s no sitting back and saying you’re not involved. After all, you’re still part of a vehicle in motion. As a member of society, declaring neutrality is simply a way of allowing bad things to keep happening. If you’re neutral, you’re part of the problem.
So get your butt in gear.
In a similar way, society doesn’t offer a “Get Out of Politics Free” card. Like it or not, everything is defined and purposed based on political machinations.
Politics lets you buy cheap, disposable clothing at WalMart and Target, and politics makes it expensive to buy high-quality, fair-trade clothing at small businesses. Politics determines the quality of the public education you received, and politics determines how much debt you will be burdened with for decades just because you want to continue your education. Politics dictates the very minimum value of your time as an employee, and politics allows major employers to make money at a virtually unchecked rate.
From the second you wake up in the morning to the second you fall asleep at night, politics is there. You can shrug and decide it’s not worth the effort, or you can give a damn and do some of that hard work I mentioned earlier to effect change in how it all plays out.
8. You are not your job.
This, finally, is my last piece of advice.
Your job is not the be-all and end-all of who you are. Unless it’s what you do with an all-consuming love and passion that makes your heart sing, your job should be 40 hours of your week that you stop thinking about the second you leave and don’t devote another moment of thought to until you show up again the next day.
The same applies to everyone else, too. They are more than their jobs.
When you meet someone, don’t ask them what they do for a living. Ask them what they enjoy. Find out about their hobbies. Learn about their families. And direct your answers that way, too. Model what you value.
I’ve worked in a lot of different fields over the years, and every single one has uttered the same platitude: “Family comes first.” But that mentality disappears pretty fast when you’ve used up your sick days taking care of ill family members and need a day for yourself, and when supporting families hits up against that precious bottom line, guess what’s going to win out.
I’m going to say it one more time because capitalism will unteach it again and again and again.
Well, we’ve reached the end of this commencement address that you never even asked for. And here’s a bright side to all this. You didn’t have to sit in a stuffy room, listening to me drone on and on. You got to read this from the comfort of your bed or couch or front porch or wherever else you might be. Or maybe you stopped reading a few hundred words ago. That’s fine, too.
I can’t begin to express how hopeful and excited I am for you. There has never been a graduating class in modern times that has faced such a momentous opportunity for sweeping, positive change. As you get deeper into adulthood, you’re going to discover more and more old ways that don’t work anymore. Don’t try and resuscitate them. Find better ways for you and the generations to come.
Dig deep and learn from the past. Act with compassion and courage in the present. And create a finer tomorrow.