“What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
When Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Robert Hunter, and Bob Weir – otherwise known as the Grateful Dead – wrote those words 52 years ago, they perfectly described America’s tumultuous journey through the 1960s. The Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, the Kennedy and King assassinations, the rise of the counterculture, and countless other trials and tribulations propelled a country less than 200 years old through a decade of intense growing pains.
A long, strange trip indeed.
That simple, timeless lyric is found in the classic Grateful Dead tune Truckin’. It’s an autobiographical song about the band’s experiences on the road during their first five years of touring. The story brings the listener along for a ride filled with ups and downs, adventure and misadventure, and desires to both escape from and find comfort in so-called normal everyday life. And it reminds us that no matter what the future brings, the best option is to always “get back truckin’ on.”
Today, as your time as high school students comes to an end, there is little doubt in my mind that each of you could look back on the last four years of your life and view it as a long, strange trip. And each of you would be right.
You are graduating in the midst of an unprecedented period of American history, and you are facing a future of unprecedented uncertainty.
As freshmen, you experienced your one an only typical year of high school.
Schedules were confusing. Some classes were way harder than you expected. Others were easier. There was Homecoming. Freshman reception. School vacations. Regular seasons of soccer, field hockey, football, basketball, hockey, softball, baseball, and lacrosse. Your older siblings and friends went to prom (along with that one kid in every ninth grade class who scores a date with a senior). And you watched the big kids graduate.
Alongside your school experience, America convulsed, undergoing its latest round of growing pains. Perhaps the worst since the ‘60s.
The calloused scabs of racism, already peeling up around the edges, pulled away from the fleshy center of their wounds. A purulent discharge of nationalism, ignorance, and hatred poured forth. The #MeToo movement empowered women to step forward, stand up to misogyny and mistreatment, and say, “Enough.” The world got hotter. There were more than two dozen school shootings across the country. And nobody gave the idea of a global pandemic a second thought.
Sophomore year started out simply enough. After ninth grade, you had the rhythm of it all down. You weren’t quite the big shots of the school, but you weren’t freshman anymore, either. Fall and winter brought the usual assortment of classes and activities. By winter break, you were feeling like you could do the rest of this high school thing in your sleep.
A few weeks later, everything turned upside down. Schools closed for two weeks. So did businesses. So did the rest of the world. Then a couple of weeks turned into the rest of the school year. Classes went remote. You struggled with classes and expectations in a way that made you feel like you were in ninth grade again. Proms didn’t happen. There were no sports. You watched older siblings and friends graduate remotely or in parades. And you waited for things to change so you could go back to normal school next fall.
Meanwhile, the growing pains got worse for a country thrown wildly off course.
Conspiracy theories raged. Truth withered on the vine. President Trump got impeached for the first time. What began as a small outbreak in China – something that could never make it all the way to America, many said – pulled the whole world into its grasp, and COVID-19 changed everything. The world got hotter still. Once again, there were over two dozen school shootings across the country.
Your junior year most likely began remotely and then moved to some version of a hybrid model, maybe being in school two days a week, remote two days, and working on your own the fifth day. Everyone wore face masks. There were no sports at first, but by winter, some were back on the basketball courts, playing while masked. This was your big year for planning junior/senior prom. Some took place outside. Others just didn’t happen. And you watched the class above you graduate outside, remotely, or inside while masked.
As a backdrop to your junior year, America’s latest growth spurt continued to wrack the landscape with pain. The ugly side of American history became a heavily debated hotspot. Personal safety clashed with how some defined personal liberty. The nation’s capitol was the site of a violent attempted insurrection. Trump was impeached a second time. The world got even hotter. Thanks largely to the pandemic, there were only a dozen or so school shootings across the country.
At last, your senior year arrived. The idea of a normal school year was something you disposed of months ago. But in twelfth grade, you got sort of close. Back to five days a week in school. Sometimes school had to close, though, until COVID numbers dropped. Sports returned fully, along with things like Homecoming, dances, and clubs. A few weeks ago, you got your prom. And today, your younger siblings and friends are here, sitting and watching you graduate. You did some or all of twelfth grade with face masks on, but you know what? You looked good doing it.
Of course, as we share this time together, outside the growing pains continue for a country that’s still growing up. A woman’s right to choose is being rolled back. Book banning is more fashionable than ever among certain crowds. Recession looms. The opportunity for those in the LGBTQIA+ community to be who they are is under constant siege. The world isn’t getting any cooler. So far, there have been over three dozen school shootings across the country. Of course, the school year isn’t over yet.
This summary of the past four years might seem a long way from the carefree sound of The Grateful Dead and less than inspiring as a commencement address, but please bear with me. This will all make sense in the end.
I bring all of this stuff up because, despite the dark times we’ve shared over the past four years and the difficulties that remain, your advancement from high school into adulthood fills me with hope.
You are leaving high school at a time when adulthood sorely needs a shot in the arm. Many of us have had our COVID-19 jabs, but the vaccine I speak of is far different from those provided by physicians and nurses. Adulthood requires a treatment that deals with the cooccurring infections of inflexibility, complacency, and smugness.
The graduating class of 2022 is the perfect antidote to these problems. By virtue of your being here today as successful graduates, you have demonstrated the sort of flexibility, passion, and humility required to survive and thrive in the post-pandemic, adult world.
As you enter that world, here’s a bit of unsolicited advice.
1. Show the generations ahead of you how to act like adults again.
Over the past few years, I’ve felt an incredible sense of shame as the adults in my life – myself included – have failed to set a decent example for kids and teens. After you’ve turned your graduation tassels from the right to the left side of your caps, go forth and raise a higher standard. Make old farts like me ashamed of how we’ve acted, and show us a better way forward. Please.
2. Be weird, and reject “normal.”
As the great gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson once said, “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” The going has been weird for a long time, presenting unexpected challenge after unexpected challenge. The folks who navigated these challenges most successfully were those who rejected any notion of, “I just want things to be normal.” They leaned into the weirdness, learned to adapt and innovate, and got weirder. Normal is the enemy of progress and a breeding ground for complacency and getting a little too comfortable.
3. Question authority.
Just like the popular bumper sticker says. It’s an idea that dates back to Socrates, though, and he didn’t even own a car. You’ll find lots of adults who clutch their pearls and wring their hands when the idea comes up. Chances are they are the ones whose ideas won’t stand up to questioning. Push back on ideas and opinions that punch down and marginalize. If something seems too easy, too trite, or too glib, have the hard conversation. But do it with sound evidence in one hand and plenty of patience in the other.
4. Challenge yourself.
Do things you think you don’t like. Expand your horizons. Take chances. Listen to music you’ve never made time for. Read a horror novel if you’re only into historical non-fiction, or get into a bit of poetry if you only read hard sci-fi. Watch a silent film if you mostly enjoy the MCU, or take a chance on some z-grade schlock if you only watch Oscar winners. I recommend Suburban Sasquatch. Whatever it is, the point is this: be open to new ideas and different ways of doing things. This goes well beyond your pop culture consumption, too. Explore the amazingly diverse cultures of our world, and discover the traditions, foods, and ways of living of those who are not just like you.
5. Get back truckin’ on.
Here’s where it comes full circle. The end meets the beginning, and it all comes together and makes perfect sense.
If life is a highway, as some have said, you are all licensed truckers. You’ve driven over highways under construction; taken detours on some of the narrowest, windiest dirt roads there are; cruised down freshly paved stretches of asphalt; made emergency pitstops; pulled into the gas station on fumes; broken down and made difficult repairs; and pulled off to the side for quick naps.
Each of you is in the driver’s seat, and in a few minutes, you’re going to shift your rig into high gear and pull onto a 12-lane highway.
The speed limit will change unexpectedly. Don’t go too fast or too slow. Stick to the speed that works in your situation.
Directions will change. That’s ok. There’s more than one way to get where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, that’s cool too. You’ll still wind up somewhere.
And lanes are going to merge. Plan in advance to be in a good spot. Be mindful of those ahead of you, behind you, and beside you. There’s plenty of room on the road for everyone. Don’t be the one who clogs things up.
I think I’ve strangled enough metaphor out of a Grateful Dead song for one day. So I’ll wrap up now. But one last thing before I go: it could be anyone sitting up there, draped in caps and gowns, proudly holding diplomas, smiling as you prepare to embrace the future. But it’s not just anyone. It’s you, and I’m so glad it is.
It’s time to start another long, strange trip. Keep on truckin’.