This is to the graduates – college grads, high school grads, other kinds of grads, too. In my neck of the woods I’m talking to Camden, Pennsauken, Collingswood, Cherry Hill East and West, Haddon Township, Gloucester City, Audubon High Schools, and more. I’m talking to Rutgers, Rowan, the community colleges in Camden, Burlington and Gloucester Counties and more at that level, too. (Much love to the universities that made my home turf, “University City”, in Philly as well). To ALL the graduates, I’m sending you love. What a time to start out with something new! What a time to step into your agency! How much you have had to face! How different were your last two years of school than you had ever expected! What is it like to face THIS world into which you are delivered? Note that last sentence has a question mark and all the others were exclamations. These are my reflections for you but I don’t really know what it’s like. I can only imagine.
Campesinos and Coffee
When I was 18 I won the oratory competition for my senior class. I delivered a very practiced speech on the injustice of the international coffee trade which featured a campesino in Colombia I had completely invented. I vowed to only ever drink fair trade coffee (And this was when fair trade coffee wasn’t even very much of a thing… AND, and I write this while sipping Dunkin Donuts.) I was very idealistic, and I hadn’t had much time for compromises yet. I’m not recommending compromises to you; I think that vow was better than my current convenience, but it happens. And I’m telling you that it happened to me so I don’t come off as just another old guy pontificating (even if that’s unavoidable).
I also bring up the oratory award because way back then, it triggered a nudge from my class’s sponsor to enter another speech competition to determine who would give the “class address” at our graduation ceremony. This was a separate speech from the “valedictory address” given by the valedictorian and the “Parents Acknowledgment” given by the class president (There were a lot of addresses). So I decided to enter that competition at the last minute, but I needed a speech.
Dad Said Get Mad
I have a vivid memory of sitting on a stool in our basement as my dad cut my hair and asking him what he thought needed to be said. I’m doing the same thing now as I write this blog. My dad said something like, “I think you should acknowledge the anger. There are all kinds of problems you’re inheriting and those in power don’t seem to care at all.” It resonated with me.
It sounded like a punk anthem my brothers and I were always playing in the car:
KLOVER – Our Way (1995)
“We’re the radiation generation
When we was born I wish iId known
Mom and daddy got the meat
And we got the bone”
I felt that jilted. WTF mom and daddy! Punk may be kind of dead so I went looking for a contemporary example, and it wasn’t hard to find.
AJR – Way Less Sad (2021)
I wake up and I’m not so mad at Twitter now
Livin’ sucks but it’s suckin’ just a little now
And I don’t wanna cry no more
So I set my bar real low
Don’t you love it, don’t you love it?
No, I ain’t happy yet
But I’m way less sad
Dang! It’s got that same clear-eyed understanding of how jacked up the world is 25 years later, but so much more resignation. AJR is setting the bar real low with a happy vibe that is dripping with irony. I think that irony is a response to the same anger I was vibing with 20 years ago. Yes, I am officially THAT old, but I don’t think my class has organized a 20 year reunion. By the way, a four year old shouted “old man” at me to his mother’s horror today as I left the Dunkin Donuts. It was too fitting because I had already begun this reflection. In response to her apology I said, “It’s ok, he’s right.”
It’s True, I’m an Old Man, but Can I Be Mad with You?
But this old man still feels jilted even though I have fully arrived at the power position our culture bestows upon me. My dad was less than ten years older than I am right now when he advised me in the basement to express my generation’s anger. That’s sitting heavy on me, for sure, but back to the story…
So I slapped a speech together for the selection committee of the class address. It wasn’t nearly as polished as my coffee speech, which I had delivered dozens of times during Academic Decathlon competitions, and I ended up bombing the delivery. I was not selected, but the class sponsor commended me for the honesty. It was not optimistic mountain climbing success delusions expected at such things. I like to think it was a prophecy. I can’t remember if it actually was.
But there are still many reasons to be angry, my graduating friends. I don’t need to tell you that, but I’d like to be another old guy telling you you’re right. I’d like to be another person listening and nodding their head at least. But more than that I would like to be someone who listens to you and follows, someone who hears the perennial prophecy of June for the same damn problems and does something that makes change. At the very least I would like to change.
Even though… … … …
It might be impossible, but don’t set the bar real low. Even though there’s no certainty a college degree will get you a job. Even though trade careers are hard to find without some piece of paper or a family connection. Even though crippling student debt is still a sound piece of advice. Even though the racial reckoning that began last summer is resulting in ideological bickering that effectively avoids actually doing anything to address racial inequality. Even though climate catastrophe has moved from the prevention phasee into the adaptation phase. Even though gay folks your age still take their own lives rather than face their community’s refusal to help them know that they belong. Even though no, you “ain’t happy yet,” and “Why would I be happy?” seems like a very reasonable retort. Is it possible not to set the bar real low? You can give up on old guys like me, but don’t give up on yourself. There is a future.
And it doesn’t have to be you.
There is a future, and it doesn’t have to be you… but it can be.
But Also Jesus
I believe the future is inevitable and it is good. Even if we leave the bar on the floor, there’s more than what we hope for, whether it’s low or high. Don’t give up on the future. One way to keep caring, and I would recommend it, is to follow Jesus, who’s got this whether we do or not. Jesus is doing something bigger than mountain climbing optimism or soul crushing acceptance of inevitable disaster.
I think Jesus can help you become old and still love it when the young people are mad. Maybe you won’t compromise on fair trade coffee, or whatever else you care about. Maybe you will. But a better “maybe” would be that you get bigger than whether you get it right or not. Maybe that.
Maybe there’s more than meets the eye, especially your eyes in the mirror. I can assure you the world is not getting better, but you might be. There is a future, and it doesn’t have to be you all by yourself. But the world could use you just as you are right now — whether you care a lot or a little, whether your bar is low or high. I’ve found it works best with Jesus and his people. With them I have made it 20 years without giving up, and hoping for 20 more.
God bless you, graduates. Congratulations on living through impossible times. I think you’re doing great. And I’m listening.