To the gathered graduates of the 2020-21 school year,
I have nothing to tell you.
You see, when your school asked me to speak at commencement, I thought it was a strange request—I’m neither famous nor especially qualified—but I also thought that it would be easy. The mission of a graduation speaker is usually a straightforward one: someone of moderate credentials or prestige is trotted up onstage to speak to you for a short time—ten to fifteen minutes, max, lest people get too restless in the sun—offer some platitudes, vaguely inspire you, and rhetorically send you on your way into a world you have prepared for but not fully seen yet.
Usually we’ll wear the same funny hat that we’re making you wear, to show that it’s not just some kind of prank we pulled on you. (It is, though. Suckers.) You’ll mostly yawn and fidget through the speech, and we’ll hope that maybe it catches on on YouTube for the right reasons, and not because someone noticed our obvious plagiarisms, or because we got attacked by a seagull during the speech.
It’s not normally a difficult task.
Using the tiny bit of authority conferred by standing behind a lectern, the graduation speaker is able to effuse with confidence and gravitas about the road that lies ahead of you.
You have learned so much these past [insert number] years, lessons that will serve you well. But the biggest lessons still lie ahead, lessons you can’t learn from any book. You will face challenges and setbacks and heartbreaks. You may not succeed right away, but if you stay strong and determined and make your bed every morning, you will come through it a better person, just like I did blah blah blah
[hurls speech papers at seagull that was creeping too close to the lectern]
You wore a mask to kindergarten.
What can I say to you that you don’t already know?
You spent third grade lining up on Xs marked in painter’s tape on the floor, and sitting in squares of it. We told you this would keep you safe, and we hoped it would, but we were learning right along with you and it was clear to you that we were just guessing.
You did the school play on a laptop screen, and that’s the same place you did math and history and French and—somehow—gym class.
You spent a year apart from each other and came back this spring to completely different people, both physically and emotionally, and you were expected to continue on as though everything was normal.
You didn’t get to do so many of the things that you were promised were part of the equation, things your older siblings or cousins or neighbors got to do, things that were supposed to be essential parts of the school experience.
You had prom outside, and it looked beautiful.
You—I see you over there, teachers, you’re the ones who look especially tired—you taught to a virtual classroom of blank squares with names over them. You spoke to a virtual wall instead of a room full of faces and you still gave it your all because that’s just what you do and calling you a hero isn’t repayment for that even if it’s true.
You did all of these things this past year, and you complained far less than adults tasked with smaller and less disruptive challenges did.
So what could a graduation speaker tell you?
We tell you that you are the future, but you’re sitting here right now. (Possibly still on a laptop screen.) We tell you that you will need to be brave and bold, but you’ve already been tasked with that. We tell you that the future is a long road full of twists and turns and bumps, but you’re already on that road and it’s pretty clear by now that the previous generations don’t have any idea where it’s going either.
We tell you to wear sunscreen. That one’s still true.
We—and I keep using “we” here to refer to myself and all the other graduation speakers out there, the politicians and low-grade television stars, the retired athletes or moderate titans of industry—we stand here in representation of the lessons of the past. We have learned things because we have been through them, and we can share with you the wisdom that gave you. The past has the answers, and we’re here to pass them along to you, the future.
We failed you this year because that’s what the past actually does. It fails you, and dares you to make the future different.
So what could I tell you? You already know.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)