Greetings to you, parents, teachers, friends, and – most importantly – graduates.
As you sit here on this most joyous of days, relishing your success and the end of your high school chapter, I know it’s tempting to focus only on the future ahead of you. I hope you’ll take a moment, however, to reflect on your past and on the road that led you to this point.
For some of you, the road to graduation was paved with success after success. You made straight A’s, stole the show as the lead in every school musical, and broke athletic records. Be nice to your younger siblings from here on out because you’ve just added a whole lot of pressure to their high school experience (younger siblings in the room, take heart – your parents will soon tire and let you have an iPhone and a Facebook profile long before they said they would).
Others of you followed a more arduous route to graduation, weighed down by baggage in the form of family drama, mental health struggles, and bigotry.
Still others of you traveled a road full of the potholes of a system that is ill-equipped to accommodate your learning style/abilities and that refuses to acknowledge your identity. (Administrators out there, see me after the ceremony and explain to me why we require kindergarteners to say the Pledge of Allegiance before they know what “pledge,” “allegiance,” “republic,” or “indivisible” mean, but we can’t say the word “gay” in their presence.)
Regardless of the path you took to get here, you should be proud to be sitting before me today in your overly expensive nightgown and funny hat (impress your friends – it’s called a mortarboard). Many of you, not to mention your parents, truly never thought this day would come.
And it did.
This day did come, and for that you are fortunate.
There are many for whom this day didn’t come. It didn’t come for the twenty children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. It didn’t come for the fourteen students who were killed at Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018. It won’t come for the nineteen Robb Elementary School students whose lives were stolen from them just last week in the twenty-seventh school shooting of 2022.
People took guns – machines whose only purpose is to kill – and made sure this day wouldn’t come for those students.
And so, as we use this time to honor the lives you are about to live, we must also honor the lives those children lost.
Before you, the lucky ones, go off and take the world by storm, I want to highlight a few of the most important lessons you’ve learned during your schooling.
1. Read between the lines.
Your English and Language Arts teachers have probably beaten this into you for the past twelve years. Don’t take things at face value. Read for subtext! For example, if lawmakers push through legislation that forbids teachers from mentioning sexuality and gender expression in the name of “protecting children” but balk at the idea of gun legislation, you can infer that they do not, in fact, want to protect children. If someone tramples over a woman’s reproductive rights while extolling the sanctity of life but is quicker to defend their second amendment rights than they are to defend schoolchildren, you can make an educated guess that life is not what is most sacred to them. In short, people will try to feed you a lot of bullshit to justify themselves and their actions (or inaction), but you don’t have to eat it.
2. Be wary about which sources you trust.
We all know the drill. You can’t cite Wikipedia in your research paper. You’ve tried. I’ve tried. We’ve all tried, and you just can’t. At this point, most of us accept this because, unlike Boomers and Gen X’ers, we went to school with the internet. We’ve been taught that anyone can post anything they want online, so you have to be judicious about which sources are trustworthy. Our teachers have preached the dangers of bias, misinformation, and misrepresentation of facts to us since day one. For instance, politicians who take money from the National Rifle Association are what I would call biased sources and cannot be trusted to contribute to discussions around gun reform in any meaningful – or moral, for that matter – way. And lest you ever think I wouldn’t cite a source, you can find a list of those politicians here (that information comes from OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan organization that explains its methodology and promotes research tools).
3. Question the status quo.
You definitely heard this one from your teachers when you learned about the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, or really any part of history at all. Throughout the history of the human species, innovation, discovery, and change have come from one question: Is this the way things need to be? And here’s the kicker: the answer is usually “No!” Do we have to keep electing corrupt politicians who will watch as countless schoolchildren die so they can appeal to their voters and get their blood money from the NRA? No. Do we have to allow people to buy assault rifles even when the framers who wrote the second amendment couldn’t possibly have imagined them? No. Do we have to accept the murder of schoolchildren as a routine part of the American way? Absolutely not.
Graduates, I’m sorry I’ve made your graduation day speech kind of a downer. The death of innocent children is cause for grief. The failure of a corrupt system should make us angry. The idolatry of guns is infuriating.
But, my dear graduates, the good part of the story is you.
You are the generation with the largest voice. You have at least five apps on your phone with which you can make your convictions heard by hundreds – maybe even thousands – of people. You literally carry a computer in your pocket, and you can use it to champion accurate information, organize protests, contact politicians (again and again and again – be a thorn in their sides), and register to vote. That’s something past generations could only dream of.
You won’t go unopposed, because unfortunately there will always be selfish people in the world. People may go for the low-hanging – and truly unoriginal – fruit and rattle off the old line about your generation’s relationship to technology, machines on which you mindlessly waste time. Kindly remind them pet rocks were a thing and then go prove them wrong. You may even have a few people question your *gasp* Americanism. I really can understand how they get that (I don’t see many other countries prioritizing murder weapons over children, so it does sort of seem like an American tradition), but when that happens, remind those people – those so-called “patriots” – what my dear friend Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said: “The Age of Nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the Earth.”
Class of 2022, congratulations on this milestone. I’m not alone in being proud of the people you are, the things you have done, and the feats you will accomplish in the future. You’ve definitely got your work cut out for you, but you are a generation of great power and, fortunately, great compassion. And you certainly aren’t alone.
As you go forth from this place, remember those who will never experience what you’re feeling now; who won’t flip their tassels or throw their mortarboards; who won’t ever know what it feels like to wake up on their first morning as a high school graduate.
By all means, celebrate your success today. Let your family take you to the restaurant of your choice. Open each card and envelope with relish. Have fun at the parties. Sign the yearbooks. Kiss your sweetheart.
Parents, take all the pictures you want. Cry over your precious graduates. Give the gifts you’ve been thinking about for eighteen years.
Teachers, take a well-deserved break. Burn your syllabi. Wear sweatpants and sleep until noon.
And tomorrow, let’s all get to work.
If you are as disturbed as I am by the continued idolization of guns that prevents any meaningful steps toward creating a safer America for our children, and if you are looking for actionable ways you can help effect change, here are two good places to start:
Everytown for Gun Safety – Everytown for Gun Safety is the largest gun violence prevention organization in America. It is dedicated to introducing evidence-based solutions to gun violence in communities all across the United States. Visit their website to learn how you can get involved in your community or how you can make a tax-deductible donation to their cause.
Contacting U.S. Senators – Now is the time to put pressure on our elected officials to advocate for the best interest of their constituents. Phone calls (while a little more intimidating) will always take more manpower to field than emails, but every little bit helps. Make your voice heard.