Welcome families, friends, teachers, and graduates. To the class of 2020: thank you for inviting me to speak. I’m so lucky to be here.
Wait – actually, that was the start of last year’s speech, the one where you picked me to be your faculty speaker. This year, you didn’t pick me, but you didn’t pick anyone else either, since the graduation ceremony itself has been pushed back. We can’t even say for certain that it will happen this year. For the first time in many years, I will not watch a group of seniors – kids I’ve loved throughout their high school careers – walk across the graduation stage and throw their caps in the air.
But somehow, I think the speech I gave last year is even more relevant this year. For those of you who were there, do you remember it? Here’s an excerpt:
While I’m hopeful for all of you, I can’t predict your future. I don’t know whether you’ll major in engineering or graphic design. I don’t know who you’ll marry (or whether you’ll get married) and I don’t know if you will come back to DC to settle down or spend your life traveling the world. The future, in so many ways, is unknown. I can’t predict it.
But there is something I can almost guarantee.
Bad things will happen to you.
I know. It’s not exactly what you expected me to say. I think I’m supposed to say something like, “the future is as bright as your dreams.” And that may be true.
But I also know this – you’re likely to face something truly terrible in your life.
I’m not talking about a B minus. I’m talking about the real world – the one where things often don’t go your way. The one where things are hard and sometimes unhappy.
Maybe you have already faced a major hardship. Maybe you weren’t sure if you’d walk across this stage today. Maybe you battled an illness – physical or mental – that made it difficult to get out of bed every day. Maybe you experienced a loss that shook the very foundation of your family.
Or maybe you haven’t yet. Gosh, I hope you haven’t yet.
Either way, I’m here to tell you this – the future holds so much promise. But the future also holds the potential for great hardship.
When I gave that speech, I talked about the terrible events that can happen in life. I talked about the potential that we could all face something that would feel insurmountable. I talked about the bad things that lurk in the world.
And yet even when I was giving that speech, I didn’t foresee this global pandemic. Even with all the movies that have been made about this very situation, and even with the articles that would come out every year warning about an infectious outbreak, I never really thought it would happen.
You didn’t either, did you?
That’s the thing about truly bad events – they are often unpredictable.
Bankruptcy, death, abandonment and loss can sometimes take years to come to the point of devastation. But other times, we are just going about our lives and then BAM! A truly bad thing sneaks up on us and bowls us over. One day it’s Monday, March 9th and you’re in my class listening to an interesting guest speaker talk about the coronavirus in China, and the next day our own school is cancelled.
A few days after that, you sit in your last in-person high school class. Few of us knew it at the time, because we thought that this was a temporary thing. We thought this bad thing would go away in just a few weeks, right?
But that’s the other thing about bad events – sometimes they don’t just go away. In fact, they often linger.
Getting through something terrible is not easy. As our head of school would say, “hard things are hard.” It’s felt like every day of the past three months has been somewhat impossible, hasn’t it?
But you have done it. Maybe you didn’t do a perfect job on your senior paper and maybe you should have studied harder for your AP tests. But you did it. And you’ve come out on the other side. Or at least you’ve stumbled to this first finish line.
That doesn’t mean that life will get easy now. I understand that you were born in the year that followed 9/11 and now you are are graduating during a global pandemic. Your college experience will not be what you once imagined it would be. You may not get to do that internship or have one last summer with your camp friends.
Things are still going to be hard for a while. But then, get this – even when this pandemic ends and life goes back to some new type of normal, even then, you may still face hardship in your life. The world is not going to be easy on you just because you’ve already faced something really, really hard.
Maybe that’s why I am heartened by the stories that I’ve heard from all of you throughout the past three months. You’ve continued to care about my classes, and many of your other classes. You’ve continued to think up ways to help others, including people who are living in your house and need that extra walk with you in the evening or another freshly baked cookie you made. You’ve continued to move forward with gap-year planning when you hear that you may not be able to attend in-person classes in the fall, or you’ve continued to plan with how you will still get the most out of your first semester of college.
You may be facing your first really bad thing right now. I’m not asking you to put on rosy glasses and only see the good in the world. That’s unrealistic, and also not particularly helpful to anyone.
But you can reach out to each other and you can persevere through this difficult thing. You can keep trying to make it through every day in the best way you can, even if it means that you fail over and over again. You can seek solace in each other, even if it’s from six feet away.
You can do this. You can face this hard thing.
And we will stand with you as you do.
We are all so proud of you, Class of 2020. You did it – and you continue to do it. You’ve graduated from high school, and now you are helping all of us see how the future looks. How the future can look.
We got you. And you got us.
Let’s face our future together, whatever it holds.