Today is graduation, for the Staples High School Class of 2022.
It’s a day of pomp and circumstance. The ceremony takes place outdoors, at Paul Lane Field — a welcome change from too many years in the stifling, cavernous, hard-to-hear fieldhouse.
Three valedictorians — they earned the same GPA, down to hundredths of a point — will share the stage. Two will address them; one will play the violin. That’s as it should be: It’s the students’ day.
But this is my blog. So I’ll take today to deliver my own graduation address. If I had the mic, I’d say:
You did it.
I have no idea how, but you did it.
I went to Staples too, back in the last century. I know that if I faced what you faced, I could not have done what you did. And my friends and classmates — many of whom still look back very fondly on our days here — could not have done it either.
We could not have coped with COVID the way you did.
One day, you were in school, living normal teenage lives. The next day you were home, isolated by a virus that ricocheted around the world.
School became a screen. Sports, drama, music, your social lives — all screeched to a halt. You were isolated at home, with parents who were terrified and teachers who struggled to find the “unmute” button.
What did you do?
You delivered meals (at a safe distance) to elderly neighbors. You sewed masks, created informational websites, and painted inspirational slogans on rocks. Every day, patiently, you reminded your teachers where the “unmute” button was.
You returned to school in the fall as juniors, but things were far from normal. You followed hybrid schedules and one-way arrows. In the cafeteria, Plexiglas shielded you from your friends. Your sports seasons were a shell of what you’d expected. Your Candlelight Concert was online.
Senior year has been better. You’re back in the classroom, on the fields and on stage. Plexiglas is gone; masks are optional.
But you have been forever changed by COVID. You have learned that the world is a dangerous place; that close human contact can be deadly; that the science you’ve learned since elementary school means nothing to some people.
The Depression left its mark on everyone who grew up then. Long after, living comfortable lives, adults ate everything on their plates; they still worried about their next meal. They switched off lights when they left rooms, to “save the electricity.”
I don’t know what the residual effects of the coronavirus will be on you. Yet it’s marked your lives in a way unimaginable when you entered Staples as freshmen.
But cast COVID aside. I know that when I was a teenager, I could not have dealt with all the pressures you face, with as much grace as you do.
It was hard enough being a teenager before Instagram offered instant, idealized versions of everyone else’s life; before a barrage of notifications demanded constant attention, responses and concern; before every photo was scrutinized, every text examined for clues to where one stands on the social ladder.
At all hours of the day. And night.
I know I could not have dealt with the academic pressures of a school like Staples. It was high-achieving then; now it’s exponentially tougher. We knew our grades four times a year: at the end of each quarter. Our parents knew only if we showed them our report cards.
As for college, it was a part of our thinking — but only a part. It did not consume our lives (and our parents’ lives) from middle school on. We visited a few (maybe); we applied; we got accepted; we went. And we did not worry about being in debt for the rest of our lives.
For many of you, this year’s college process was brutal. It’s tough to get into any school these days; it’s tougher still when there is so much focus on “the right” one.
I hate it when commencement speakers give advice, but WTF — I’ll do it anyway. Trust me: Wherever you go, you will do fine. Your Staples education has given you a huge advantage; so has growing up in this town (despite its many faults). You are smart, creative, persistent. You are well-prepared. You will rock whatever school you attend.
So stop worrying about college decals on the car, or what you think others think. Take courses that interest you, make interesting friends, then rock the next steps in your life.
You are a wonderful class, filled with talented, accomplished, energetic, caring and compassionate young men and women. You have given of yourselves in so many ways.
You have been Best Buddies and SLOBs (that’s a good thing). You have coached youth sports teams, taught religious school, and shown elementary and middle school kids that they should be proud of whoever they are.
And you’ve done it all — well, most of the time — quietly, with generosity and smiles.
I have spent much of this speech telling you that back in the day, I could not have done what you did, in your time at Staples.
This school served me well. I am proud of many things I have done.
I am not proud, however, of the world my generation is leaving to you. It’s a mess. We’ve broken many things: our climate. Our political system. Our faith in each other.
When I was at Staples, my friends and I were sure we would change the world.
We did. Just not in the way we planned.
So, Class of 2022: Congratulations on an astonishing 4 years. You have made your school, and our community, very proud. Thank you for navigating a very difficult time, in your own very special way. It’s not something I — and very few of your parents or grandparents — could have done.
The universe is yours. Go rock it.
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