Each graduating class has a story to tell, but the Class of 2021’s tale is unique. This year’s graduates have been steeled by outrageous fortune, becoming particularly well-prepared to deal with adversity and seize opportunity when it is within reach.
For this year’s college and high school graduates, the academic experience was upended late in their junior year, when COVID-19 landed in the United States. Since then — for most — there has been no school, then remote learning, then hybrid learning, then an increase to in-school learning. Along the way, each iteration has required a transition, with students, teachers and parents learning on the fly.
As basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told graduates at Washington University in St. Louis this year: “Surviving means that you have come through the catastrophe but you’re still relatively intact. Thriving is about learning and growing as a result of the event. That’s what graduations are all about.”
Throughout Clark County, high school commencement ceremonies will take place over the next several days. Districts and schools have devised plans to facilitate social distancing, and in-person graduations are a welcome change after last year’s remote or drive-thru ceremonies.
Amid the sense of accomplishment and thoughtful words and bounty of well-wishes, it is important to recognize that the American education system calls the rite a “commencement.” We are not celebrating the “conclusion” or “completion” or “destination,” words that suggest finality. We are acknowledging “a beginning or start,” according to Webster’s.
As Newton D. Baker, a politician from a century ago, is credited with saying, the person “who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after.”
For the Class of 2021, the path to graduation has wandered far outside the constricts of any textbook or final exam. The most obvious analogy is to Sisyphus, a figure from Greek mythology who was condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down when he neared the top.
This year’s graduates — and their parents and families — have had to move a boulder each day, only to start from scratch over and over again. It has been exhausting, and yet is has instilled resilience, fortitude and dedication — attributes that will serve them well throughout their lives.
Along the way, they have witnessed a changing global landscape, economic and social uncertainty, and a nation trying to come to grips with its past as it carves the path for its future. As civil rights activist Ruby Bridges said at Tulane University’s graduation: “You see, Class of 2021, opportunity comes packaged in many boxes and it often shows up with no return address. The sender is history, and she does not accept returns. Once the package is opened, you accept the gift, and you embrace the demands attached to it.”
Every year, a new graduating class enters the world facing slightly different challenges than their predecessors. But this year’s class faces challenges that were unfathomable a little more than a year ago, a world that has been altered to the point where the goal is simply returning to “normal.”
There is no telling, however, what normal will look like. As Laurene Powell Jobs told graduates at the University of Pennsylvania: “We have to be prepared to walk through the door when it opens, or, by our own power and purpose, to open it ourselves.”
Congratulations to the Class of 2021.