Barth Keck

Despite the fact that no one has asked me to deliver a graduation speech this year (once again), I won’t let that stop me (once again). So herewith, my commencement address to this year’s high school graduates:

Greetings, high school graduates of 2022. You made it. You have earned the unique distinction of spending the majority of your high school years under the spell of a pandemic that has wrought school closures, remote learning, hybrid schedules, mask wearing, mask breaks, traffic lines in hallways, rapid testing, quarantining, Google Classroom overload, and any number of other annoyances, novelties, and adventures. But you made it. You’re here, on the precipice of an entirely new journey. Congratulations!

As young adults about to enter an unprecedented world of college, trade school, travel, work, or some other definitively non-high school exploit, you have no doubt been told countless times that you are “the future.” Well, I’m here today to take back that cliché. It is my heartfelt belief that, rather than the future, you are absolutely the present, the now. You are, quite simply, the generation that provides this country – perhaps this entire world – its last best hope for survival. In fact, you have no time to waste, so could you please start leading the way, like, immediately?

Sorry to lay such a heavy burden on you at a time when you’d much rather kick back and celebrate, but this country as it’s run by adults right now is doomed. Yours is the only living generation that truly “gets it.” You understand how the entire world is changing, and you are the only ones who seem to know the way forward.

Consider climate change. It is your generation – Generation Z, or people currently between 10 and 25 – who take it the most seriously. When a Pew Research poll asked about the potential dangers of climate change, nearly 69% of Gen Zers expressed anxiety. Compare that to only 41% of Baby Boomers. Or even worse, the measly 13% of all Republicans.

Since 66% of all climate scientists expect to see “catastrophic impacts of climate change in their lifetimes,” it is clearly you – this year’s high school graduates – who have the most realistic perspective on this issue. You understand that climate change poses a significant threat to this planet, and you are the generation most willing to do something about it.

Now think about politics. Older generations have placed themselves in an endless cycle of bitter arguments over virtually every conceivable issue, making us the most polarized democracy in the world. Yet, your generation remains open to sensible debate. A recent study by UCLA found that two-thirds of the students now entering college invite others to challenge their views and truly believe that “dissent is a critical component of the political process.”

It’s really not surprising that you are so willing to hear different points of view, considering how you’ve grown up as the most diverse generation in this country’s history. Four years ago, U.S. Census numbers showed for the first time that among those under 15, people of color outnumbered whites. Moreover, 21% of current Gen Z adults identify as LGBT. In short, you embrace the new diversity of America while many older Americans fear it.

This fear is based in racism – there’s no other way to say it. A full third of American adults, for instance, have expressed a belief in “Replacement Theory,” a contention that powerful liberals are systematically moving culture and voter composition in their favor by bringing scores of immigrants – people of color, oh my! – into the country. It’s a belief propagated on cable news shows, most notably Tucker Carlson of Fox News who attracts 3 million-plus viewers each night. According to the The New York Times, Carlson has promoted Replacement Theory more than 400 times on his show since 2016.

But you, graduates of 2022, do not fall for such tropes. You have no fantasies about some make-believe past when America was homogenous and, therefore, “great.” In fact, you have grown up in an America that is beautiful in its multi-colored richness: black, brown, yellow, red, white – an America moving ever closer to Martin Luther King’s dream where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”

Clearly, you still have your work cut out for you. Just a few weeks ago, a malevolent 18-year-old man – a young adult – killed 10 black people in a Buffalo supermarket after expressing his own devotion to Replacement Theory in a 180-page screed. Ten days later, another 18-year-old entered a Texas elementary school and gunned down 19 students and two teachers for reasons yet unknown. But these two young men are outliers, nothing like the majority of their peers in Generation Z who see an America of all colors and who overwhelmingly favor stronger gun-control measures. Many older Americans, meanwhile – especially those in power – are content to rely on “thoughts and prayers” to stop the hate and carnage.

Yes, monumental struggles lie ahead. But you, graduates of 2022, are this country’s last best hope. You are the “digital natives” who grew up in a world already immersed in computer technology, cell phones, and the internet. You are not only capable of becoming media-literate to help you negotiate all of this technology; you are in a position to harness technology’s power for constructive communication rather than divisive disputes, for identifying truth rather than disseminating falsehoods, and for seeking good rather than spreading evil.

The future cannot wait for you to take over, graduates. The future is now, so you must take the reins posthaste and lead the way. Otherwise, I fear this country – and perhaps this world – is doomed.

Once again, congratulations, class of 2022! You have completed your high school education amidst supremely challenging circumstances. That’s why I believe that you are the generation that will save the world – so, please, get cracking!

Barth Keck is in his 32nd year as an English teacher and 18th year as an assistant football coach at Haddam-Killingworth High School where he teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition. Follow Barth on Twitter @keckb33 or email him here.

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