Congratulations! You made it! Whether you limped across the finish line or sprinted, you’re here. You did it.
Much like the fabled middle child, the Class of 2021 is going to get overlooked. They won’t bask in the same glory of the first born pandemic cohort, the palindromic graduates of 2020. While that storied class will forever be known as the ones who missed graduations and proms and class trips, you, class of 2021, were in the shadows, quietly studying. After all, you still had a full year of schooling to manage.
What about prom, Blaine? Forget about prom Blaine, there was a whole year of curriculum to worry about.
Some of you spent your entire senior year remotely, getting up close and personal with your teachers, your classmates, and your video cameras. Who knew that so many teachers owned gaming chairs, right? Some had to shove cotton swabs up into their brains twice a week. Some of you sat your exams in masks. Some didn’t get to sit exams–the holy cumulative grail–at all.
Nevertheless, you persisted.
That’s not to say there weren’t setbacks and disappointments and frustrations. You weathered an unexpected storm in a rickety cardboard boat as well as you could. Better, in fact than many of the adults around you, many of whom chose to whine and complain and who sometimes made some shockingly shitty decisions. No, for the most part, you put your heads down and did what was asked of you, pivoting as needed, reshuffling your lives, your expectations, your education, your relationships and reformatting them to fit whatever new world you faced that month, that week, that day.
Regardless of your final GPA or IB score or A level results, that you are even here at all–getting ready to don a funny, square hat and close out this chapter? It’s a remarkable achievement. I am proud, but oh my, how proud you must be of yourselves.
The last fifteen months has probably proven that the grown-ups in the room often have no frigging clue what they’re doing. So as you take your first step on the path to grown-up-ness–whatever that means in this day and age–it’s time to learn the great secret of adulthood, lesson number one: many of us don’t have a single, solitary clue. Oh, we fake it well enough. We flash our fancy degrees around and tout our experience and the wisdom gained with age, but when it comes right down to it, most of us are making it up as we go along. Flying by the seat of our pants. You’ve always been told to look to us for guidance, but this past year, many of us failed you. Not guiding you as much as leaving you alone in a dark, windowless room with a spotty WiFi signal and expecting you just to get on with it.
Yet, you’re here. A testament not to us, but to you.
And that’s the next lesson: people are going to continually disappoint you. People you love, people you trust, people you looked up to. Heroes, role models, that actor you had a crush on when you were a tween. But so will the everyday people who populate your life. They’ll inevitably say something problematic or offensive or just downright craptastic and make you do the hard work of re-evaluating your feelings. It sucks. But it’s also a good reminder that humans aren’t one-size-fits-all. We all come with a factory default range of emotions. We all make mistakes. We all hurt the ones we love. The trick is not learning the art of the empty apology, but the real work of accountability.
The truth is, you’ve already met most of the people you’re going to encounter in life. I don’t mean the actual people–my hope is that you go out and meet as many people in as many places as you can–but the types of people. The characters who traipse upon all of life’s a stage. No matter what you do, there’s going to be the clown who pushes the limits to get a laugh. There’ll always be the one who thrives on drama and stirs the pot, the one who finds a way to get everyone else to do their work, the one who takes life super-seriously, the misfit, the one who masks their insecurity with a swagger, the asshole. You’re going to encounter those characters every place you land, from college to jobs to the airport check-in line. Identifying them makes managing your reactions to them a whole lot easier.
People–some of whom you already know, some who you’ve yet to meet–are going to want you to be different things. They’re going to try to convince you that they know what’s best for you. Most of them have your interests at heart. Your parents. Your teachers. Your peers. And they may even be right about some things. But at the risk of sounding like Dr. Seuss, there’s only one person who knows who you are and that’s you.
Cultivate that person, whether it’s the person you are now or the one you want to be or the one who exists in your most secret fantasies. Spend time tending to yourself. Nurture yourself and most of all, be kind to yourself. We preach a lot about being kind to one another but sometimes we forget to teach you to be kind to yourself.
Look at you now! Your bones are done growing. That plate in your skull that your parents worried so much is fully closed. To the world, you’re adults. But maybe you’re still figuring out who you are. The bones may have set, but your soul hasn’t settled. The truth is, I hope it never does. Boxes are comfortable because they make us feel safe. We like to check them off on forms. We like to draw them around ourselves and those like us. But it’s not often we totally fit inside the lines. There’s always a toe out. Or a fingernail. Sometimes it’s a whole limb. Sometimes we find ourselves standing outside the box altogether, trying to figure out how to get in. Sometimes we’re trying to get out of a box that someone else put us in.
You, Class of 2021, you’ve seen more of humanity than some of us have seen in our lives. Over your Zoom screens and your Google meets you’ve seen people come together and others determined to throw a wrench in the works. You’ve seen the world rise up and protest injustice. You’ve watched countries falter and lose their way. Some have found their way back. Others have not. You’ve had a lifetime in a year, much of it playing out over your computer screens. You’ve been forced to reimagine everything.
Keep that re-imagination alive.
The world as I knew it, the world that I imagined all those years ago when I was standing where you are now, that world is gone. The things I thought were important turned out not to be so important and the ones I sort of dismissed turned out to matter a whole helluva lot.
But that was my world. This one’s yours. It’s your turn to grab the world and change it for the better.
And that is my final lesson: If you wait on the world to change, the world is going to let you down. You have to be the driver. You’ve had all the lessons, the practice runs, and you’re fully insured and passed all your tests. Sitting behind the wheel may be a little scary. Or maybe not. Maybe you can’t wait to leave it all behind you in a plume full of exhaust, fast and furious.
The world really is yours, not just for the taking, but for the changing. You just have to steer yourself in the right direction.
So there’s really only one thing left.
Open your hands and take the keys.