The news this week that Yankton High School has scheduled a “virtual graduation” for its seniors on May 17 — with COVID-19 having taken care of the real thing — snapped me briefly out of the blur that’s been this plague year by making me realize that graduation time is here again.
In any other spring, every high school and college would be gearing up right now for this ritual, the solemn culmination of years of hard work and the pinnacle of so many memorable experiences.
One tradition of the graduation season is the commencement address, in which featured speakers impart wisdom and life lessons to graduates who, let’s face it, are probably barely listening since they already have one foot out the door. But we do it anyway, if for no other reason, to provide some filler and create a little squirmy anticipation before diplomas are dispensed.
However, this is a different time — a nervous, empty moment unlike anything we’ve seen before, a time when the virtual and the distant must occasionally stand in for the real.
Even so, this commencement season still makes me think of the messages graduates ought to hear. While I can’t remember anything that was said at my own graduation, I’ve covered enough of these addresses to have picked up on a few common strands along the way.
To be fair, though, I believe any commencement address that one might imagine for this year would be criminally ignoring the reality of these times if it didn’t include the words, “Well, THIS sucks …”
Then again, I also think there’s really no need at all for this year’s graduates to hear commencement speakers serving up life lessons.
Instead, all the kids need to do is look around.
Many commencement addresses point out that life is full of unexpected twists and turns. Hey, welcome to 2020! The pandemic has derailed everything, but people are generally coping with it and making the adjustments (some of them quite difficult) that they need to make. For their part, students have been learning online and, in the process, getting a good taste of working independently and focusing on tasks that aren’t overseen by teachers hovering directly in front of them to explain everything. This has required some discipline and initiative, and that’s the foundation upon which a successful life is built.
Some graduation speeches emphasize devoting time to family. With everyone hunkered down and spending a ton of time with their own family members — mostly because there’s nowhere else to go — the grads-to-be are cultivating this valuable skill by default, if not under protest.
Many graduation speeches herald the importance of charity and giving to the community. We’re seeing a lot of that these days. Last week, I shot photos at a food distribution event held in the YHS parking lot. Several volunteers were there to help the participants maneuver their vehicles around the pylons and get to where they needed to go, and then more volunteers helped load boxes of food for people who have been hit hard by the economic downturn. Meanwhile, other volunteers are doing other important deeds at this time; in fact, they’re doing them ALL the time. The need never goes away, and neither do the opportunities.
Some commencement speakers advise graduates to “cherish the good times.” That’s self-explanatory, although the “good times” bar has been lowered lately to include pretty much anything before mid-March.
And on it goes …
Typical graduation speaker: “Try new things.” In my case, I’ve discovered how to turn a bandana and some rubber bands into a double-ply face mask. Check.
Typical graduation speaker: “Life is full of obstacles.” Yep.
Typical graduation speaker: “Never stop learning.” Me again: I’ve learned the correct way to thoroughly wash my hands and how to measure about six feet of distance almost instantly by sight. So there’s that.
Typical graduation speaker: “Don’t forget your old school.” I’m fairly certain this year’s graduates aren’t going to forget the empty, isolated limbo that should have been their cherished last quarter of their senior year, and they may even start missing their old schools a lot sooner than past graduates.
Finally, commencement speakers always let you in on the ultimate, most practical truth about any graduation exercise: It isn’t an end but a beginning. That has never, ever been truer than this year. The “end” arrives in such an uncertain, clumsy, anticlimactic void, and the beginning must now blossom from this wreckage. And it will. That’s a lesson these graduates should not soon forget.
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