To the class of 2021: Why the pandemic gave you an edge
This is not the year you wanted, but what you learned just might save the world.
Head off into the future, knowing you have mastered the most awkward times.
Head off into the future, knowing you have mastered the most awkward times. [ Times (2006) ]
Published Jun. 3
Updated Jun. 3

Editor’s note: This speech is free to any school in need. For example, if your commencement speaker falls ill and the janitor agrees to step in, just hand him these words. It’s fine, don’t worry about it.

Dear senior class of 2021,

Congratulations on finishing high school in a year that felt like trying to get a parking spot on Clearwater Beach. Matriculation? More like ma-TRICK-ulation. Graduate? More like SAD-uate. Scholarship? More like BLAH-lar… okay, anyway.

This is a momentous occasion, and you should be proud. For untold days on the 2020/21 school calendar, you said, poetically: “Really? Whatever, I guess.”

Senior year in America is an apocryphal tale inspired by bad movie sex comedies. You envisioned sharing red Solo cups and screaming at games and singing sappy songs about how tomorrow starts today. Academics would take a back seat to just, you know, hot breathing.

But if school is supposed to prepare you for life, it did an exceptional job in this pandemic. If you were virtual or in-person, if events were canceled, if teachers started each day with garlic and a crucifix, senior year was a personal trainer for the suckfest ahead.

Wait? Suckfest? Graduation speeches are supposed to be pep talks brimming with optimism. Sure! However, as Mama always said, take the edge off your depression by lowering your expectations.

For instance, you will have strange roommates. You might even be married to one or two. But this year upped your patience. You were supposed to be frolicking, riding bikes in the aisles of Walmart at 2 a.m. Instead, you were home, forced to watch The Masked Singer with your dad, who kept drinking your Spindrift.

You will say so many things you regret. They will pour out like rainbow Skittles. Get ready to lie in bed after a party and replay conversations, wondering if everyone hates you. Relax. Everyone is doing the same thing. Next time, though, think back to your mask days, when you had to conserve communication. Is it worth it to weigh in on what Kendra did? Are you qualified to speak on the Middle East? Proceed slowly and clearly.

Dating will be awkward, and heartbreak lies ahead. But it will not be worse than when you had a family meeting to bring Alex into your COVID bubble, because you were ready to take things to the next level. Nothing will ever be that bad.

You’ll be qualified for a job. Painfully qualified. But it will go to some Adequate Kyle whose father holds an incriminating photo of the hiring manager. You have been ready for this ever since you got vaccinated but still had to skip grad night because someone in statistics tested positive.

Maybe you’ll choose a trade, working with your hands. You are equipped for all skilled industries after cutting your own hair, unclogging the toilet, emptying the air conditioner pan and constructing tiny kingdoms out of hand sanitizer bottles.

Or maybe you’re ready for your first big office job! Haha, the company probably realized it can save money by keeping you remote. It’s going to be just like senior year, with your roommate asking you how to use Microsoft Teams.

Here’s the truth, seniors. No one knows what lies ahead, not one minute, year or decade. Graduation speeches have opined on the unpredictable nature of existence since the dawn of time. It’s usually like, “the boy to your left will be indicted for identity theft,” not, “the world will erupt in a deadly pandemic.”

Never say, “it can’t get worse,” unless you are into hexes. But it can, and will, get better in bits.

You’ve lived through an unforgettable chapter of history. You’ve witnessed death, devastation, political upheaval and injustice on a world stage. Odds are, you’ve decided the kind of person you want to be, the kind of voice you want to have.

Maybe you emerged harder and less trusting. Or maybe you came out more compassionate, more open. Maybe you let Dad have the Spindrift without rolling your eyes.

Just know that what you went through at the end of high school will forever inform who you become — someone strong, wise and brave. We need you that way to push through our tomorrows, however messy they might be.

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

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