I love listening to commencement addresses (Nerd Alert! I watch them on Youtube!) I find them hopeful, optimistic and inspiring. I live in an area surrounded by college campuses. I love graduation, seeing excited students, friends and families. I can’t help but think of all the hard work, tears, joys and experiences of the graduates. This important tradition of graduation has been radically transformed this year. My heart goes out to the graduates and their families. Many of my students are graduating from college this year, and my oldest son is a high school senior. Though I am pretty sure I will never be asked to give a commencement speech, I think we need one more this year than ever. So, here is my address to the class of 2020:
Faculty, staff, administration, alumni, family, friends and most important, graduates,
I’m humbled and honored for the opportunity to speak to you today. I know how disappointed you all are to not have a real commencement and how disappointing your senior year has been.
I would like to give you a word, just one word, that I think may help you to reconcile and grieve your loss. A word to inspire you now, and compel you forward in the future. That word is: Solidarity. Solidarity is a French word that means unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group. I want to focus on the idea of mutual support.
What you have done over the last several weeks is about much more than you. You have stayed home, social-distanced and forgone so much to keep yourself safe, yes, but also to save others. By sacrificing your own senior year, you have shown us a great example of solidarity! So often when adversity strikes we naturally focus inward and are most concerned with how it will affect us. Surely you have done some of that during this pandemic, as you should have. You have every right to grieve for the loss of opportunities and closure you so looked forward to. And yet, even though you may not have been sick yourself, you made necessary sacrifices to isolate yourself to lessen the impact for others. Your sacrifice has not gone unnoticed, you have shown solidarity with your community and with the world.
If you are like many of my students, and my own son, you grew up reading and loving J.K. Rowling’s magical world of Harry Potter. Remember, Harry, Ron and Hermione also gave up their senior year, or seventh year as they say in Hogwarts, to find and destroy the horcruxes in order to save the wizarding world. They, like you, showed solidarity. So yes, mourn for what you lost, but also take comfort in the fact that your sacrifice was not in vain.
One of my favorite lines from a commencement speech comes from J.K. Rowling at Harvard: “There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you.”
This pandemic has no doubt changed the route you will take into the future but the responsibility to determine where you end up is still yours. We know you can do it!
Along with Harry Potter, your generation has also grown up with superheroes. Like you most superheroes wear masks. Instead of concealing your identity your mask will be a unique reminder of how you, in solidarity with the world, wore it to help protect others, not from super-villains, but from this superbug! Arguably, the greatest superhero creator of our time is Stan Lee. He tells a great story at a UCLA graduation event about how he developed Spiderman deliberately as a teenager with teenage troubles and his publisher thought it was a terrible idea. Despite this, he slipped The Amazing Spiderman into the final issue of a magazine and it was a huge hit! This is best one liner of his speech:“If you have an idea that you genuinely think is good, don’t let some idiot talk you out of it.”
With all you’ve been through we can’t wait to see the amazing ideas and leadership you will provide. We know no one will get in your way!
This idea of solidarity will also compel you forward, if you let it. The whole world will remember 2020, but as graduates, you will share something unique: the fact that you lost your senior year, and graduation. This can unite you to your fellow graduates in a way that other events would not. So, what do you do with that? Continue to think about others. Like Harry, Ron, Herminoe and Peter Parker, you will overcome your obstacles to fight for the greater good.
We’re proud of you! We’re counting on you! We have every confidence in you going forward.
Congratulations and good luck!