Dear Class of 2020,
I watched Saturday’s bittersweet national TV special salute to you torn between wanting to applaud the idea of the program and wanting to shake my fist at the fact of its necessity.
In the great scheme of things, you may well see a canceled commencement as pretty small potatoes. The graduation parties that go with it, maybe not so much. You are, of course, a portion of the larger American society. One that has been profoundly affected by this pandemic emergency, its shadow cast over hundreds of thousands who have been stricken by the virus as well as millions who have been thrown out of work in the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. As the slogan goes, “We’re in this together,” despite some shrill protestations to the contrary.
Earlier last week, an old friend posted on social media some photos of her daughter in an elegant evening gown. Months before, mother and daughter had spent weeks on outings looking for that perfect dress in the usual excitement anticipating the coming spring’s prom.
Now, the best that could happen was for your classmate to dress up for some photos on the day the prom was supposed to have been held. Maybe some of you thought of that, too. Despite the warmth of those pictures, individually and with her family, I wondered what was really going on behind her smile, as I did about her smiling older brother whose first year at a university in another state had been cut short.
It occurred to me: You are members of a generation — dubbed Gen-Z — whose whole lives have been filled with uncertainty and vulnerability. You have been sent daily into school buildings that could, in an instant, become a killing field. Some of your most important lessons were learned in “active shooter” drills. Many of your families have been hurled into a financial tailspin — perhaps for a second time in a dozen years. And now, you are forced to choose between incurring backbreaking debt to further your education or limiting your career opportunities.
For your entire young lives, you have been a captive audience to the dissembling hypocrisies, moral passivity and intellectual paralysis of adults who have supported, consented to or looked the other way while unapologetic greed and selfishness have displaced integrity and responsibility. Who repeatedly voted for leaders who have methodically looted the economy as well as the public till. Who stood by while our system of government became so corrupted that it made possible the election to the presidency of a vacuous and vicious bully — the type of person, when you were in middle school, nobody wanted to be around.
I have found myself wishing I could gather a group of you into a room somewhere and ask: What do you really think about all this? Is there anybody you feel you can really trust? Standing at the threshold of the rest of your lives, what do think you really see? And mostly, what to you really think of us — the adults who are supposed to be running the show — the same people who currently can’t even agree on what “safe” means?
Looking back on my own coming of age in The Sixties, I have long hoped that I would never see a time when anyone would ever have to live through the kind of monumental tragedy, chaos, sorrow and bitterness of that time. Class of 2020, my heart truly breaks for you.
One of the themes of Saturday’s program was that you were “born to make noise.” I sincerely hope so. Do it. And don’t ever stop. Please.