Class of 2021 Commencement Address

Transcript

During these unprecedented times, the Class of 2021 has faced challenges we never could have imagined. Every morning, we made the voyage from our bed to the desk two feet away from our bed. Common Ground wasn’t there to give us sage advice like “don’t bully people” and “racism is bad.” And worst of all, every speech began by talking about these unprecedented times.

When I was informed that I would be your commencement speaker, I was told to represent our class. There was lots of other advice, but it was a long email so I just skimmed the rest. I assume the instructions were to give a speech that everyone would want to hear, so let’s give it a try. Class of 2021, life is a long-winding road. Yes, there will be obstacles, but if you work hard and chase your dreams, good things will happen. This has concluded that speech. Thank you and good night.

Now the real speech. Life is not fair, and work ethic alone is no guarantee of success. We all come from different backgrounds and catch different breaks. As a result, we often will or won’t receive opportunities for reasons having nothing to do with our merit. For example, some of you coasted in Trotier’s class while the rest of us had to labor away taking Gov with Chazen. Another injustice: Parkway still made us take Gov even though anyone within 50 feet of Chazen’s room had already heard all the lectures. Speaking of teachers, we can look to them for more proof that life is unfair. Receiving no extra pay, they had to adapt to a quarter system and four reopening switches, all because the district was too scared to put the Facebook mob in their place. Some people just got way more uncomfortable. In related news, your parents will complain about that joke on Facebook later tonight.

But merely dwelling on an unfair world won’t get us anywhere. As we prepare to enter that world head on, we must understand why it exists and what we can do about it. Thus, we need to discuss contradictions, emotions and ideas that don’t belong together, just like the words “asynchronous” and “learning.” If you think about what’s at the core of the conflicts, stressors and problems in your life, you’ll start to notice a pattern. We’ve been facing contradictions for a long time, and we must recognize that they aren’t going away anytime soon.

We entered high school in 2017 only having one skill: cool fidget spinner tricks. But as time wore on, a contradiction arose: we found ourselves replacing the upperclassmen we looked up to despite the fact that—and I can’t stress this enough—no one should have trusted us with anything. To prove this, I’d like to read some excerpts from the senior group chat. And let me just say, wading through that cesspool is an hour of my life that I’m never getting back. Quote,

“We ain’t Ladue bro.”

“The glove didn’t fit.”

“I finished my presentation, may I leave the Zoom?”

“Sorry, wrong chat.”

And how could we forget, “Hey guys! Senior gathering tonight,” followed a few days later with “Some people were wearing masks.” And before you get mad at that last one, it didn’t start at any of our houses, so it’s fine.

We were, and to a lesser extent still are, naive, but we stepped into bigger shoes and ran with them. As sophomores, our football team were undefeated state champions. Wait, sorry, I was told I’d be speaking at Ladue’s graduation—scratch that. Of all the jokes, that’s the one that set some of you off. But make no mistake, our class does have legitimate accomplishments to celebrate. Student groups like Sunrise and the Environmental Club advocated for a more sustainable future. American Sign Language Club helped make West a more inclusive place. And members of our class stood up for the rights of all, from Ferguson to Palestine. We didn’t just replace our predecessors at West; we actively built upon their work. And, of course, there was the crown jewel of our achievements: last year, we manifested an extra long spring break. Oh, too soon?

But then something else happened. Every game, gathering and get-together vanished. And we were reminded of another contradiction: that the most connected generation in human history is also the loneliest. COVID didn’t create these contradictions, it just highlighted them. In the golden age of information, why is it easier to twist the truth? And in the most productive economy to ever exist, why do we find our lives less fulfilling?

The answer is contradictions, ones that begin at a systemic level and seep down to our daily lives. Even St. Louis itself is an example of this. After decades of discrimination in housing and job markets, an invisible line in Delmar makes St. Louis one of the most visibly segregated cities in the country, and that includes our school system. When a contradiction is so deep-rooted like this one, we often shut down and just repeat what the leaders before us did. We get task forces, investigations and, my personal favorite, task forces about investigations. Meanwhile, Parkway’s city bussing program is phasing out as we speak. And I admit, it’s even a contradiction that a white guy from Ballwin is the one with a platform to talk about this. But all of this underscores a key flaw in our approach to contradictions: we must realize that the generations before ours have failed. They have handed us a world that is torn up in disarray. That responsibility is ours now, but we won’t get out of this mess by relying on the ideas and institutions that got us into it in the first place.

So what are we supposed to do? We need to organize and mobilize with conviction. In the face of contradictions, it’s tempting to hug the middle ground for fear of what may happen if you venture too far. To those people, I would argue that trying to blend into an ever-conflicted world will only leave you trapped in the very conflicts you hope to avoid. The only way to thrive in this world is to make a promise to yourself, an uncompromising commitment to the values and causes that you cherish the most. And if you zoned out once I started saying serious things, here’s the Sparknotes version of what you missed: half-stepping is for losers. Don’t do it.

And I’m not alone here. The finest scholars on Earth have been studying contradictions for years. As eloquently stated by cultural philosopher Gucci Mane, “Without the sauce, the man is lost. But that same man can get lost within the sauce.” Whatever the proverbial sauce may be for you, life will throw contradictions your way and put your values to the test. External forces will stand at odds with what is best for you and those you care about: fame, money, things I can’t talk about in a graduation speech. Most people will give in to these contradictions and take the path of least resistance; the risks that come with acting boldly terrify them. But if you truly stick to your values, even your losses will feel like wins because they’ll genuinely mean something to you. We all fear contradictions. But whether it’s a sauce drought or drowning that you’re afraid of, remember that only a stubborn insistence on what you love and need the most will keep you afloat. Thank you, and congratulations, Class of 2021.