Dear Class of COVID-19,
This sucks. It totally, totally sucks. There’s no way around that. No one was expecting this. I know how many tears you have shed and will shed. I know how you feel because I feel it too.
I am rather astonished by the array and unpredictability of emotions I wake up with and move through each day. When I wake up each morning (if I have slept much at all) even before I open my eyes, I do a sort of scan for what the morning’s emotional flavor will be. Fear. Joy. Sadness. Love. Anxiety. Excitement. Worry. Levity. Overwhelmed. Warmth. Irritation. Elation. Anger. Grief. Grief. And more grief. And more grief. We are living through a collective grieving process.
I am thinking and feeling all of you who are graduating this year. I am thinking a lot about my seniors and also my son, who is graduating from sixth grade. He has attended the school he will graduate from since he was 4. His school is small and intimate. It is a nest of nurture and support and love. It feels safe. Many of you feel the same way about the school you are graduating from. Even if you don’t love your school, this was going to be a hard transition. Even before COVID-19 upended our lives, this was going to be a hard transition. Transitions are hard. You are leaving places that, at worst, are familiar and predictable, and, at best, have held you and loved you and helped you laugh, stress out and grow.
You are at the threshold between phases of your life. This is profound. This is true whether you are transitioning from elementary school to middle, from middle to high school, from high school to university, or from school of any sort to whatever lies beyond. This is the big one—the transition to the Big Wild World. Once you leave a phase of your life, you can’t go back. You know this and it hurts and it is terrifying. It is also inevitable and, perhaps, beautiful.
Graduations matter because they give us a doorway, they help materialize the threshold between these phases. They are a ritual that marks leaving one phase and entering another. They are a way of preparing for a profound transition. We dress up in unusual costumes and become very solemn with each other. We might march to predictable music or sit in the hot sun for hours. And then there is a ritualized exit and celebration, cheering, parties, lots of hugs. Sometimes students toss a beach ball around.
And somehow this makes us ready for what comes next.
Well, yeah. Sort of.
Human beings love and need our rituals. We create them where they don’t exist and cling to them where they do. They are a vital part of what makes us human. Rituals matter because they make the transition across that terrifying, exhilarating threshold predictable, and therefore palatable. They make it fun. (But the ritual itself is actually kind of boring, to be honest.) They turn all that is unknown and unknowable into an experience of predictability, on one hand, and collective joy and celebration, on the other.
You may be writing a thesis or doing some other kind of capstone project as you prepare to graduate. Writing and preparing a thesis is another ritual. We talk about this capstone as preparing you for the world of work or further education. You build skills, important skills. You gain knowledge, important knowledge. And then you display and demonstrate those skills and knowledge for a broader audience. This marks another threshold crossed.
As classes and thesis presentations and graduations across the country and around the world are cancelled, postponed or moved to a far less satisfying electronic format, you are losing this important ritual. But you are not losing the threshold. This is hard because the rituals helps us deal with uncertainty. It makes us feel prepared for the new role we need to take on.
I keep hearkening back to my favorite quote from The Lord of the Rings:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
I wish this need not have happened in our time either.
Here is the thing. The ritual is not the transition. The transition has already happened. And not happened. You are already what you will become. The reality is that in our transitions we are already ready before the ritual pushes us through the door. And we are also never ready. This is why we are angry and sad and scared.
You have been ready for a long time. You are already living in the Big Wild World. Some of you have been responsible for your families and your friends for a while now. Some of you have been working your way through school. Some of you are already dealing with some very challenging Real Life things. But all of you are ready for this.
You, Class of COVID-19, are more ready than any class has ever been. You are more ready because you are resilient and capable and full of imagination. You are more ready because you have always known that predictability was something of an illusion. You are more ready because you have always known that your generation would probably be the ones who had to remake the world. You are more ready because you are creative and good humored and irreverent and funny. You are more ready because you understand the virtual world better than anyone. You are more ready because, in some way, you have prepared for this moment your whole life.
So some thoughts for you if you are hurt and angry and scared and wondering if any of this matters:
It does matter. You matter. Your thesis or capstone or culminating work matters. All the work you did in all your years of school matters.
- It matters because your world has become bigger: you have learned the stories of people and places and histories that you would not otherwise know.
- It matters because your world has become smaller: you have come to care for people who live lives different from your own in times and places that are not where you are from.
- It matters because of knowledge gained: with this knowledge you are armed with facts that you can use powerfully.
- It matters because of skills gained: you have the skill of critical thinking to challenge uncritical thinking; you have the skill of knowing the difference between fact and fantasy (a big one these days); you have the skill of writing, speaking, communicating to different audiences.
- It matters because all of it gave you power. You have power because of your skills and knowledge and caring.
This moment is calling all of us to figure out how to use the power that we have in ways that we have not thought of before. We cannot use it if we are stuck in fear and sadness and anger. We cannot use it if we are passive.
Your thesis, specifically, matters. You have invested so much time and energy and passion in this project. It matters because you care about the story you are telling in your thesis. Part of me wants to say that I don’t even care if you finish it because it has already done its work. (Ok, I do care because it is brilliant and I desperately want to see how the story ends– your story as a student and the story you are telling with your thesis.) But more than anything, I want you to know that what you have learned matters to the world. How can you take advantage of this moment to tell the story that your thesis tells to the world?
So some final advice to get through this moment: Cry, but do not wallow. Embrace your anger, but do not let it consume you. Feel the fear, but keep walking through it. Feel your feelings as often and as long as you need to, but hold them lightly. Do not cling to them. Brush them away like dust. Be patient with them. The dust will keep gathering. Keep brushing it away, as often and as long as you need to.
And in the brighter moments, embrace, with curiosity and even excitement, the newness that is this moment. And remember to do the work that is all of our life’s work— the work of figuring out how to make it all mean something, how to make it all matter. I know you will keep doing this work because you already have and you always will.
Congratulations on your graduation, on the dazzling brilliance of your capstone project, on your passion for your life’s work, on all that you have already become, and on all that you will be.