Have you ever been asked to be the chief speaker at a high school or college commencement event? No? Nor have I, and wasn't it great to be passed over?
Commencement speakers are free to say what they want. But tradition expects them to offer congratulations to the students, tell them what a great world they're stepping into, and advise them on how to make the most of it.
That script will be hard to follow this year. To start with, there will be fewer commencements, at least of the standard variety with a large gathering packed into one hall or arena.
Waiting for the new graduates will be a killer virus and the warfare that has developed over how best to eradicate or control it. Plus a few more headaches you and I can easily name.
I graduated from college 64 years ago. Ike Eisenhower was in his third year as president, with five more to go. He was sane, a grown-up, a proven soldier and diplomat. He possessed an ego that didn't need boosting. Our sole international enemy was the Soviet Union. Our two major political parties often worked together instead of snarling at each other. Life in the USA was not perfect or "great," but it seemed promising.
And what are this year's graduates facing? Mostly uncertainty, of a colossal degree. A Columbia University professor, Mark Lilla, recently published an essay in the New York Times whose headline summed up what is probably the truth: "No one knows what is going to happen." Some cheerful wag once said, "Things are going to get worse before they get better." And sure enough, things got worse. But they didn't stay that way forever.
In 1956, a year's tuition at my college cost $660. Toss in a few dollars more for room and board and we had it all pretty much covered. In contrast, the class of 2020 is an army of many young men and women indentured to banks, the government, their own colleges or their own parents.
But big changes may be coming. Thanks to the lockdown imposed by COVID-19, people young and old are learning that higher education can be achieved at home with a working computer and other tools, just as easily (and at much less cost), as in a college classroom. The pandemic is predicted to spell the collapse and disappearance of at least a few halls of ivy.
Although most 2020 graduates and their parents may bemoan being cheated of a traditional commencement ceremony, many others won't much care. A year or a month from now, would most attendees remember the remarks or even the name of the speaker? All I can recall from 1956 was that the speaker was the Philippines ambassador to the U.S. His eloquent pronouncements that day have guided me for half a century. Or would have if I had stayed awake.
Graduation celebrations can still be held. A few days ago I heard a raucous cheering and honking of car horns, as a line of vehicles passed through my normally quiet neighborhood. At first I thought it must be a wedding sendoff (although I've seen few of them in recent decades). And then I realized the ruckus must have been raised by the graduating seniors from the local high school. I wish them all the luck in the world. They will surely need a sizable chunk of it.
If I were given the power, would I turn back my clock to 1956? I doubt it. But I'd gladly give up my chance, if it meant resurrecting Dwight Eisenhower to spend another eight years in the White House. And, dear Lord, please, do it soon.
To the Class of 2020 I say: COVID-19 may have blown away your final campus party, but it doesn't have to be the end of your story and the friendships you've made in the past four years. Look at the list of the connector tools you have at your command: Telephones, U.S. mail, email, face-to-face hookups, Skype, Zoom, Facebook. Try to use them all or any of them. They'll be waiting for you. And so will your classmates.