Let’s not sugarcoat it. Your last semester in high school has gotten demolished by a global pandemic and it is wickedly unfair. Your graduation is now a drive-thru, your prom is imaginary, and instead of spending your last semester of senior year hanging out with your friends and taking a victory lap, you spent it in your bedroom doing classwork over Zoom and making Tik Tok videos.
You, the global class of 2020, have joined the small list of graduating classes that have ended up colliding with history – your senior year eaten alive by a pandemic and global economic meltdown. My parents’ class was one – they graduated into the explosion of World War Two. My older brother’s was another – they graduated into the height of the Vietnam War and the draft.
Because my daughter is behind you by just a year, I have a sense of the great group of people that you are. You have given your communities amazing music performances, beautiful art, powerful sports, and taken the world around us and given it spark. You are diverse and smart and creative. You are interesting and you just make our country a way cooler place. And now you have shown us how resilient you can be when life switches up on you.
I told my daughter I was going to write this column to you and asked her what I should say? She told me, “Use that thing you wrote in the introduction to your new book.” So here it is:
“When does a journey begin? It’s not when you board the bus, or the train, or the plane. It’s not when you pack your bags. It isn’t when you start to plan your itinerary or buy your tickets. The journey begins when the idea of it dances as an inspiration into the outer edges of your mind and the mystery of the universe plants it there and it remains.”
I wrote that about an actual journey, the one that carried my wife and I to Bolivia for two decades, but it applies to your journey as well. With a pandemic or without one, graduation from high school is the start of your adulthood, the time in which the big choices about your life are now yours to make and not someone else’s. And as it turns out, the choices you make when you are at the start are some of the biggest ones you will ever make. I was 19 years old and a sophomore in college when the idea popped into my head there should be an organization to help social justice activists become more powerful and that it should be called the Democracy Center. Now that idea and organization have been my life’s work for almost 30 years.
That your senior year has collided with history is not a random accident, it is a message. Your generation will not have the option of living in blissful ignorance about the world around you. Pandemics do not know borders and do not offer exemptions from being affected – nor will the coming impacts of an altered climate, or the divisions of race and economic inequality and intolerance that drive us apart.
You have seen now, in an undeniable way, how the world affects you. So maybe give some thought to how you might want to affect the world in a positive way. Few generations have been given more work to do, but none have ever been so globally interconnected.
For most of you, the goals you have for yourself are still blurry and out on the horizon. Most are probably about you – the school you want to go to, the job you want to have, the places you want to visit, and all the rest. That’s fine, it is your future. But find some space in there as well to change the world, in the way that is your way. As J.K. Rowling, the writer who gave us Harry Potter has said, “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
Please know that your whole country is thinking of you and we are quite aware of all you gave up this semester to help all of us stay healthy in a dangerous time. We owe you. Thank you and happy graduation!
Jim Shultz is the founder-executive director of the Democracy Center and author of the new memoir, “My Other Country, Nineteen Years in Bolivia.” He lives in Lockport, New York and can be reached at www.JimShultzTheWriter.com.