The New Greatest Generation:

A Commencement Speech For The High School Class Of 2020

Dedicated to my son, Noah Barbush and the entire graduating class of 2020. Listen to the speech here.

Photo Courtesy of Baim Hanif

Welcome to the High School graduating class of 2020. It’s an honor to address all of you, on this most uncommon of ceremonies.

These past few months have been emotionally and physically devastating. Many important things have been taken from you, and my goal today is to give some of that back, the best I can.

This moment is called culmination for a reason. Because it all comes to this. It’s not just moving on academically, it’s moving on fundamentally, as a human being, packing life’s lessons along with crates of sheets, pictures and clothing for wherever your dreams take you next.

Your great-grandparents, many of whom are not here today, were known as the Greatest Generation. They came of age during the depression, and helped our country fight and win WWII. Sadly, many of them have left this earth. But today, there is a new generation to carry that title. And that is you.

You are poised to become the Greatest Generation our country has ever seen.

Why? Because for them, fighting the enemy was different. It was in another country, a world away. The enemy wore uniforms different than our own. They had it hard, no doubt. But so do you.

Photo by Scott Webb

Your enemy was all around you. In schools, synagogues, malls, churches. Safe spaces were no longer safe. Your enemy wore the same uniform as you, and was harder to spot. They carried guns in backpacks, and filled their minds with hate. There was no way of knowing who, when and where they would strike. You would just bravely carry on your lives, your education, your world with that uncertainty in the back of your head. Where they had air defense drills, you had active shooter drills.

Growing up, the enemy was very real for you. Yet it wasn’t. And that is hard.

Photo by Jason McCann

You are the baby boom of September 11, 2001. For our generation, it stands as one of the most emotionally devastating times we’ve experienced in our nation’s history. Many didn’t want to bring kids into the world after that. We were so disillusioned when those towers fell, those planes crashed, and those innocent lives were lost. But your parents worked through that apprehension, to bring you into the world. You were born not out of fear, but out of hope.

The hope that you could do the things we were unable to do.

And so, the children whose courageous spirit was born out of national tragedy are the graduates who stand before us today, facing another invisible enemy. It is no coincidence that you are the class of 2020. You have a symbolic clarity of vision associated with that number. You know the life you are leaving behind in search of the life you want to achieve. A better tomorrow driven by the actions and attitudes of today.

And that is the mission that lies before you.

Someone recently referred to your situation as the lost graduating class. I could not disagree more. No, you are more found than any class that came before you. You are the discoverers, the seekers. Never did a class have the opportunity to change the world, at a time when people are actually listening, when people are actually feeling, and seeing. And suffering, and wanting change. We tried, and no one would listen to us.

Our wish is that you can do what we could not.

Photo by Suhyeon Choi

You have grown up between worlds. The one that appears before you, and the one that so effortlessly glows in your hand, buzzing endlessly. The screen is your portal to find friends, likes, love and distraction. But the screen also has a mystifying power that pulls you in and away from the real-world-problems that lie before you. Escape is important, but constant escape means you do not act upon the things necessary to make the world a better place.

Many people say they know what you are going through, but they do not. They had their milestones, their ceremonious walks across the stage. They had their prom night when they snuck cheap beer into their hotel rooms. They sat snickering during the graduation speeches, knowing they were wearing nothing beneath their gowns. They got to decorate their graduation caps, paint their chests, throw up on a friend’s lawn, and pose for pictures with people who would soon become a distant memory. They took for granted the freedom to mark this achievement in the carefree, and sometimes reckless way high-school seniors have done for decades.

But most importantly, they had closure. An opportunity to say goodbye to one life as they graduated to another.

Photo by Wil Stewart

Every generation who graduated before you knew things would never be the same, yet they had a chance to act upon it. Just like you, they had built a community and that community was about to sunset, as they ceremoniously moved the tassel from right to left. Saying goodbye to that can be hard.

Not saying goodbye is even harder.

It’s tough to imagine now, but all of these losses and lessons will make you stronger, if you allow them to. You will know deeply what it feels like to lose something. You will witness the problems in our world that still need fixing, the minds that need changing. You will understand just how fragile life can be, and how a few short months of life can change an entire way of living.

You will have an appreciation of your time on earth, a relationship with the environment. Hopefully, you will fight for this. With your spirit, your actions and your vote.

I hope the lessons you are learning, last far beyond the problems they have created.

Photo by Andrew Neel

Sitting with these lost feelings is not easy. Remember and be grateful for what you had before and what you will have soon again. Our brains will want to forget. Some people will want us to forget. But if we forget, we lose. And all of this will be for nothing. And that can’t be.

You deserve more. We all do.

Coming out of this, you will notice life is less predictable. Which is a good thing. It will keep you present and honest and protective and grateful. All the things we never could be, because we were lost in our commutes, and paperwork and overtime and oil changes and business trips and everything else that prevented us from seeing life’s true gift. And now, you have time to act upon those feelings, those truths and build a world around them.

But first, you must slow down.

There is a meme going around. It says “Your grandparents were called to war, all we asked you to do was sit on your couch.” It’s glib, and completely unfair.

The same people saying that are the same ones who made you. The same people who overscheduled your every moment growing up. We made it so you could not function in silence, or enjoy the stillness of life. We pushed you hard and fast and immediately stopped when the world asked in March.

We narrow-mindedly expected you to be able stop as well. We are guilty of conditioning you for what’s next, not what’s now. And we are all to blame for the hard time you are having in your present moment of internal quiet.

Photo by Helena Lopes

And every movie or series we binge is a reminder of our isolation. We become nostalgic for the near-past, and the human companionship that came with it. We watch in awe on our screens, seeing people close together, hugging in a classroom or singing and dancing on a freeway overpass. It creates a longing sensation and we yearn for that point in time, the touch, the hugs, the closeness. Even a day, or an hour would suffice right now.

Then, we become lost in our own heads with the notion that life is actually alterable. We see it so clearly before us. Never did we think that something so small, something so invisible, something so a world away could do this. But it did.

And hopefully the decisions you make in the future will account for how you feel right now. For many, it’s easier to make the wrong choice than the hard choice. That’s why so many things are messed up with the world. So many problems that need fixing. Sadly, many people don’t have the courage to stand up for what they believe in, if they don’t think others believe in it too. Maybe they are worried about losing friends, losing votes or losing clients. But there is no greater loss than losing sight of what’s right. It’s important to always speak your truth. If you don’t, you will lose yourself forever.

Photo by Clay Banks

These last few months, many people have been slowing down, eating meals together, and sharing each other’s lives in isolation. But why did it take so long? It shouldn’t take a pandemic to come together as a family. That is simply a choice. As you build your life, make family a priority. We have taught you the art of distraction, so unlearn that skill. Human connection is the most important thing in life, more important than the house you live in or the car you drive.

We have created possession-based dreams that leave us feeling unfulfilled as we wrestle with this new understanding of life. Look to our failings and re-prioritize what feels valuable to you at this moment in time.

Because if you put your own kids on a race to nowhere, eventually they will arrive at that place.

In time, the world will reopen. When that day comes, move about the cabin and learn new cultures. Invest your time and energy into cultivating relationships with equality in mind. You will begin to see worlds you didn’t know existed. Moments will become sharp with the focused understanding that life is a fleeting and precious gift for everyone. No matter the skin they wear or the God they worship. In the end, we are all human.

And now, you are ready to take your rightful place with the many others who have come before you to graduate. The way that you are experiencing this moment is not fair. So before we finish, I have a favor.

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary

I want you to feel bad. Yes, I know that sounds strange to ask, but please do. Feel bad for what this world has done to you these past few months. Feel bad for how your parents may have lost their job, or are struggling with their business. Feel bad for those risking their lives on the front line, and those who were lost to this virus. Feel bad for missing your friends, not going to parties. Feel bad for a world without movies, milestones, the mall, prom.

Feel bad for not having a real graduation. Feel bad for all the stressful things in your life that this pandemic has brought about. Curse it. Scream at it. As loud as you can. You deserve to. Scream it louder. Do not let anyone tell you that your feelings don’t matter. They matter more than anything in the world right now.

And when you’re done, this time, do yourself a favor.

Let it go.

Let go of the anger, the frustration, the sadness and breathe.

Photo by Dallas Reedy

To the graduating class of 2020. Go forward with courage, strength and commitment as a voice of honor, equality and change. Start today and take your place as the new Greatest Generation. So that you can build a world better than the one we’ve built for you.

Future generations are counting on it. And so are we.

Co-Founder Cast Iron LA agency. Webby Judge. Satirist. Contributor to FastToCreate, AdWeek, HuffPo, Digiday and others. I fight fire with humor.