Dear Class of 2020,
True Story: I fell on top of my 90-year-old headmaster during my high school graduation. The Dean of Discipline made some comment about how I’d be remembered for my grace and two of my friends in the front row exchanged money because one had lost the bet that my clumsiness would inevitably get the best of me during this momentous occasion.
My college graduation was a blur seeing as how the alcohol from the previous nights escapades hadn’t yet left my system. I showed up to one of the most important days of my and my parents’ life, late and nearly missed the entire thing had it not been for the relentless phone calls from friends asking where I was. I had on the world’s most painful heels and half of last night’s makeup on my face sans one eyelash extension. I was the true definition of a hot mess.
My grad school commencement ceremony was pretty chill. I went to an art school so, of course, they did the absolute most but I myself kept it together for this one.
However, for all three ceremonies, I couldn’t tell you a single thing any of the speakers said. I was too busy wondering if the boy I’d had a crush on would finally admit his love for me, or if I’d gotten accepted into the post grad summer internship program or how I was going to break the news to my parents that I wasn’t going back to Ohio but moving to California.
None of these things even remotely equates to the existential questions you, the Class of 2020 are all facing. Your class is the first one in over a century to graduate during a nationwide pandemic! Not to mention the rising racial tensions as more and more people are realizing the injustices placed upon the Black community due to centuries of systemic and heinously oppressive racism. That’s some heavy stuff!
So, YouTube did a thing. Using their YouTube Originals channel, they wanted to make sure you all had just a bit of light in this dark tunnel. The four and a half hour long commencement star-stravaganza, aptly called “Dear Class of 2020”, featured some of the most influential people of this generation, who all tried to offer up a bit of inspiration in the hopes of uplifting the year’s graduates.
My President, Barack Obama told graduates that the Coronavirus is shining a light on a plethora of issues plaguing this country.
“In a lot of ways, the pandemic just brought into focus problems that have been going on for a very long time. Whether it’s widening economic inequality, the lack of basic health care for millions of people, the continuing scourge of bigotry and sexism, or the division or dysfunction that plagued our political system.”
Obama added that “as scary and uncertain these times may be, they are also a wake-up call. And they’re an incredible opportunity for your generation.”
However, I think most of you know that. Although I’m not too far removed from your generation, seeing how so many of you have taken to the streets and fought, I mean truly fought, against the system has been truly inspirational and incredibly awe-inspiring.
You are a generation with so many resources and so much technology at your fingertips and you’re using it to change the very fabric of our world. You all are able to see the mistakes of past generations and you want more. You want to see a change in the world you live in and so you’re making it happen, the status quo be damned! The past two weeks of protests stemming from the murder of George Floyd at the hands of several police officers have shown us the unextinguished fire burning inside of you.
Michelle Obama said the ongoing protests of Floyd’s death are a “direct result of decades of unaddressed, prejudice and inequality.” She understands those who are “scared or confused or angry or just plain overwhelmed.”
“Over the past few months, our foundation has been shaken,” she said. “Not just by a pandemic that stole too many of our loved ones, upended our daily lives and sent tens of millions into unemployment, but also by the rumbling of the age-old fault lines that our country was built on, the lines of race and power that are now, once again, so nakedly exposed for all of us to grapple with.”
She goes on to say that “we all have no choice but to see what has been staring us in the face for years, for centuries. So the question is, how will we respond?”
The first lady laid out three life lessons for the graduates:
- “Life will always be uncertain. It is a lesson that most of us get the chance to learn over the course of years and years, even decades, but one you’re learning right now.”
- “In an uncertain world, time-tested values like honesty and integrity … empathy and compassion. That’s the only real currency in life. Treating people right will never fail you.”
- “For those of you who feel invisible, please know that your story matters. Your ideas matter. Your experience matters. Your vision for what the world can and should be matters. So, don’t ever, ever let anyone tell you that you’re too angry, or that you should keep your mouth shut. There will always be those who want to keep you silent, to have you be seen but not heard. Maybe they don’t even want to see you at all. But those people don’t know your story, and if you listen to them, then nothing will ever change.”
Towards the end of her eloquent speech, Michelle became emotional: “Here’s the thing: I know you can do it, because over these many years, I’ve seen exactly who you are. I’ve seen your creativity, and your talent and your resourcefulness. I’ve seen you speaking out to end gun violence and fight climate change. I’ve seen you gathering donations for those in need during this pandemic, I’ve seen you marching with peace and with purpose. And that is why even in tough times like these, you continue to be what gives me hope. Graduates, you all are exactly what we need right now, and for the years and decades to come. You learn so much, so quickly. And not only can do better than those before you — you will. It’s your time. I can’t wait to see you all take the reins.”
The Queen, Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, delivered her own ten minute speech to the graduates.
“You are achieving things your parents and your grandparents never could have imagined for themselves. You are the answer to a generation of prayers.”
She went on to speak about the impact the protests have made: “Look what you’ve been able to do in the last fourteen days. We’ve seen the power of the collective. We’ve seen what happens when we join for the same cause. Please continue to be the voice for the voiceless.”
She also implores us to remember the beauty of being labeled an “other”.
“If you’re part of a group that’s called ‘other’, a group that does not get the chance to be centerstage, build your own stage and make them see you. Your queerness is beautiful, your blackness is beautiful. Your compassion, your understanding, your fight for people who may be different from you, is beautiful.”
Listen, far be it from me to tell you how to process this incredibly difficult time in your young adult lives. I barely know what I want my life to look like from week to week. However, the good thing is that you have time to figure it out and decide a million times again and again what you want from this life and how you want to move in the world. Don’t put so much pressure on yourselves, I promise it’ll work out and if it doesn’t, just remember whatever crooked path you’re on now, will always lead you exactly where you need to be. Never underestimate the power your voice yields.
What I will say is stay strong, be safe, and please vote.