The past few months have conjured up a mix of emotions, from fear and uncertainty about the health and livelihood of family and friends, to pain and sadness as we have watched horrific moments of this global pandemic and its economic aftermath unfold in front of us on the TV and in our communities. I have felt extreme gratitude for the health workers and those on the frontlines helping to feed and care for everyone else.
As May arrives one other group is occupying my thoughts, the Class of 2020. As an educator, academic regalia has been as much a part of my spring wardrobe as the seersucker worn at the Kentucky Derby. It is truly one of my favorite seasons. The bitterness of this moment is particularly hard as I have a daughter graduating from college and a niece from high school in May.
The revelry and joy of the last days of school and Senior Week, trips to the beach, the performances, athletic events, proms and formals, and the crowning moment of your walk to the stage in cap and gown — all gone due to these unprecedented global circumstances.
Students will instead receive their virtual diplomas and head out to face the job market or the start of college in the face of uncertainty. Over the past few weeks you have passed one of the most important tests of your career as a student — the test of character.
Life is full of irony. Class of 2020, you have had to endure the comments and remarks about your generation from older generations like mine constantly complaining that, as a generation, you are apathetic, self-centered and lacking ambition. The bitter irony is your generation sacrificing these rites of passage for that same older generation that is most vulnerable to the dangers of this pandemic.
This spring has been a lesson in sacrifice, a lesson in the importance of putting the greater good above your wants and desires. A true lesson in the meaning of liberty — the idea that a large part of our freedom and “pursuit of happiness” hinges, not on individual rights, but on our collective responsibility.
Each spring during my time as a superintendent, I conducted a seminar with many student leaders in the senior class, reading and discussing Emerson’s Self Reliance. I am impressed by how the students of your generation approach the true understanding of what Emerson means when he says “self.” It is not the unbridled individualism as with the ego or isolated self. He refers to how we share the uniqueness of our “self” with one another in community.
Self-reliance is not reliance on individualism, it is rather each individual in relation to a larger force that binds everyone together. The key is pursuing a mission uniquely ours for the sake of the larger world. The optimism and conviction about your role in creating a prosperous future inspires me to think that we are in better hands under your leadership than those of my generation and the one before me.
You are an activist generation with a heart for others. You give each other the freedom to express yourselves without judgement or criticism. Everyone is accepted for who they are, free of hate and prejudice. You believe in science and the nobility of public service. You put the betterment of our planet above yourselves.
Pope Francis opened the holiest week of the Christian calendar a few years ago with an admonition to your generation on Palm Sunday. “Dear young people, you have it in you to shout ... It is up to you not to keep quiet. Even if others keep quiet, if we older people and leaders keep quiet, if the whole world keeps quiet and loses its joy, I ask you: ‘Will you cry out?’ ”
These days will pass. Better times are coming. Remember the lessons of history. The Renaissance sprang out of the dark days of the bubonic plague. The “Roaring Twenties” followed the last great pandemic of flu in 1917-18. The time is coming for you to provide us with the leadership we need. The time is coming for you to “cry out.” Class of 2020 — I am ready to follow you and your generation into the future.
Now go out into the world with confidence — believe in yourselves. Know that you can and will contribute your unique selves for the betterment of our global selves.
Find your inner light not by asking what do I want from life, but by asking what does life want from me? How can I match my talent with one of the world’s deepest needs?
Thank you for your sacrifice.
Congratulations and Godspeed!
Dr. Nick Brake, former superintendent of the Owensboro Public Schools, is currently serving as an executive-in-residence at Western Kentucky University.