I have yet to deliver an actual commencement address, but I have written a few such speeches in this space before. If I were to write a graduation speech this year for my students, it might sound like this:
Greetings, high school graduates of 2021. You made it. Despite a global pandemic that has lasted for a good portion of your final two years in high school, you have indeed reached your destination. Now, it’s time to move on. But before you do, some thoughts:
As much as I’m tempted to define your COVID experience as uncharted and unprecedented, I’d rather avoid those clichés and focus on a few lessons that you – the high school graduates – have taught me – the curmudgeonly English teacher – over the past 16 months.
First and foremost, you have taught me about resilience and the importance of social-emotional health. We closed schools in March of your junior year. Most of you took that time to adjust and to reprioritize, and you finished the 2020 school year with open minds, ready to accept whatever the pandemic would throw your way going into your senior year.
When the 2020-21 school year began, you adapted to a hybrid schedule, which divided your class into cohorts that would attend school on alternate days. That scenario lasted until March, and you did not waver. You accepted the mitigation strategies without complaint – the mask-wearing, the social distancing, the weird schedule – and you made the best of a challenging situation.
Through it all, you taught me to be more patient, to be more cognizant of others’ emotional needs, and I obliged. I understood that I needed to pay more attention to your social cues, to take the time to ask how you were doing. Ultimately, you helped me become not only a better teacher but also a more thoughtful person. It’s a lesson I will carry into the future.
Similarly, you showed me how to be more open-minded. While many adults in this country are actively fighting our growing diversity – either by preventing the teaching of our racist history or by inhibiting civil rights for the LGBTQ community – you have expressed an openness to the splendid variety of people who comprise America.
Connecticut, for example, is one of only three states (New York and Massachusetts are the others) where 50% or more of its high schools sponsor gay-straight alliances.
What’s more, it’s the young people like you who actively work for racial justice: “About four-in-ten (41%) of those who say they recently attended a protest focused on race are younger than 30; among all U.S. adults, 19% are in this age group.”
Put simply, it is you – the youth of America – who openly accept the fact that by the year 2044, white Americans will become a statistical minority (49.7%) for the first time in history. Rather than fear this reality, you embrace it, understanding that America’s diversity is indeed its strength.
Finally, you have taught me to trust science. Truth be told, I was already a firm believer, but your steadfast willingness to honor science-based mitigation strategies reaffirmed my belief. And for this teacher of media literacy, I find your scientific awareness most welcoming at a time when misinformation and science denial have reached surreal levels.
To wit, you have scoffed at the anti-vaxxers who spew idiotic conspiracy theories by seeking your own vaccinations in impressive numbers: 53% of Connecticut residents ages 16-24 had already received one dose by June 7, while 42% were fully vaccinated.
Your trust in science will be roundly rewarded, not just as protection against the coronavirus, but as an immediate pathway toward continued education: Colleges and universities in Connecticut have begun to require student vaccinations. The University of Connecticut, for instance, joined Wesleyan and Yale in adopting that requirement just last week.
So, thank you, graduates, for affirming my faith in science. Thank you for showing all of us how to embrace our diverse population. Thank you for exhibiting responsible and unselfish actions during a public health crisis. Thank you, in other words, for turning the tables and being teachers to the adults.
Before you walk across the stage to receive your diploma, I must offer this essential piece of advice: Please be active consumers of the media that now surround you 24/7. Be curious. Expand your news sources beyond your social media feeds. Read those sources deeply and critically. And don’t fall prey to misinformation as many adults do. In short, become media-literate. You might be our last, best hope.
Congratulations! You made it to graduation after navigating uncharted territory and unprecedented situations. (Sorry. I couldn’t resist!) It’s now time to take the next step. We will all be watching because you will undoubtedly have many additional lessons to teach us. Well done, best of luck, and Godspeed.
Barth Keck is in his 30th year as an English teacher and in his 15th year as assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School in Higganum where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language and Composition. Email Barth here.
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