My youngest niece, Courtney, just graduated from high school, three weeks after the date originally printed on her graduation announcement and without any of the North Dakota relatives that her mother so wanted to be there.
My sister says it was a wonderful ceremony, even though graduates had to wear masks in sweltering Florida heat and each graduating senior was limited to a maximum of four guests. Her "after-party" consisted of 10 people, including her Florida aunts and a couple of her closest friends. It was quite a letdown from the plans for a graduation bash at Universal Orlando Studios.
Then again, so was the cancellation of Courtney’s senior prom, her 18th birthday celebration and that exhilarating last day of school shared by all seniors. It really is hard to know what to say to the kids who just graduated. This is typically when you feel your most energetic, hopeful and excited about your future.
I still remember the summer after my high school graduation as a high point — a time when I felt the most bulletproof and confident that I’ve ever felt. It must be harder to feel that way these days.
Years ago, I wrote a column giving advice to graduating seniors. Get workplace experience, I told them. Don’t be afraid to have fun at work, because you’ll spend most of your life there. Connect and get to know others.
So little of that advice translates to our current world. What tidbits of knowledge would I share with our newest grads? Don’t go to college keggers unless the tap is slathered in hand sanitizer? Be sure to gain internship experience in your field of study — unless, of course, the office has been closed because they’re all working remotely?
Then I stumbled across an article by historian Brooke L. Blower that brilliantly captured the history of the graduation speech. Published in “Perspectives on History,” the news magazine of the American Historical Association, it reminded me that this is not the first class to graduate amid frightening events and great uncertainty.
In 1917, right as the United States joined the Great War, one commencement speaker told graduates: "The whole elaborate structure of modern civilization seems crumbling into dust.” (How’s THAT for a go-get-‘em pep talk?)
Or imagine what it was like to graduate amid the depths of the Great Depression or during World War II. In that era, Henry Luce, the creator of Life magazine, told graduates: “All of us wish that we might welcome you into a different sort of world than it now is.”
Even after the war, Winston Churchill scared the graduates of Westminster College half to death with his famous “iron curtain” address, telling them that “a shadow has fallen” upon the world. It was, Churchill reminded them, a “solemn moment for American democracy, an era of pain.”
Some of the hurdles were more insidious. In the 1950s, Adlai Stevenson, known as a “progressive” leader in the Democratic Party, told Princeton’s all-male graduating class seniors that their power was “virtually beyond measurement.” He encouraged them to think for themselves, “for yours is a great adventure at a stirring time in the annals of men.”
Unfortunately, he also told the all-female graduates of Smith College that their job as the “humble housewife” was to keep their husbands “purposeful” and “whole.” While their men would be off ensuring the survival of the free world, their dutiful wives would be “in the living room with a baby in your lap or in the kitchen with a can opener in your hand. If you’re really clever, maybe you can even practice your saving arts on that unsuspecting man while he’s watching television!”
In the 1960s, “Twilight Zone” creator Rod Serling’s graduation address was a combination of groovy fashion guru and Sgt. Joe Friday: Wear what you want to wear. Grow beards or don’t grow beards. Enlist and go to Vietnam or stay home and protest the war. But don’t go “sniffing glue and trying LSD.”
With that in mind, may the class of 2020 get through this OK, acquiring some resilience and wisdom in the process. Just don’t forget your Lysol Wipes.
Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at firstname.lastname@example.org.