Commencement means beginning

“Time it was, and what a time it was, it was…
A time of innocence. A time of confidences.
Long ago, it must be.
I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories.
They’re all that’s left you.”

Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends album had been out just a couple of years when our high school class donned our mortarboards and received our diplomas,

I honestly can’t recall who our commencement speaker was, much less the inspirational message that person offered us. Or anything else about our 1970 graduation ceremony — an exercise that I honestly can’t even remember attending.

But I must have been there, at least physically, wasn’t I? I must have heard a speaker exhort us to seize the opportunities that lay before us, to confront our futures with with confidence and believe in ourselves and all that we had been taught in the public school career that was drawing to a close.

My heart goes out to the Class of 2020 who’ve have been robbed of the opportunity of closing out their own high school careers in one another’s supportive company, perhaps being able to high-five and embrace one another, and wholeheartedly know that they’re about to embark on a wonderful, maybe terrifying real-life adventure where they can make their own destiny.

As I write this, a prime-time special “Graduate Together: America Honors the Class of 2020” planned to air with a variety of celebrity speakers, including former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama to offer a message of hope and unity to more than 3 million high school seniors, offering them a time to look ahead together as we all struggle through this historic crisis.

He's already told a virtual college commencement audience, “If the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to you.” *

The world these teens are inheriting is fraught with challenges, from this global pandemic and the economic future that it’s evaporating, to the perils of climate change and a 230-year-old democracy that’s being existentially tested … all of which begs for their complete involvement and attention as they graduate into becoming full participants in finding solutions and taking on adult roles in society.

We faced what seemed similar times of upheaval as we graduated after years rocked by the Vietnam War, bloody Civil Rights struggles, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and Malcolm X and the tumultuous 1968 elections. The closing days of our senior year were marked by the shootings at Kent State and Jackson State.

And I can still recall waking up that morning in early June 1968 to the gut punch that Bobby Kennedy, who I’d supported, had been shot at the Los Angeles celebration of winning the California Democratic primary overnight. After learning all that I could absorb about the horrific shooting, I sat numbly in front of the TV screen and watched a montage of RFK images to The Bookends Theme that were imprinted in my soul.

A time of innocence. A time of confidences, And consequences.
A yearbook from those days came inscribed with fanciful quotes that guessed at where we might be headed:
“It’s funny but I could never imagine you with a pot belly and a bald head.” “What will we say when we meet in Waldbaum’s 15 years from now?”
As it is, our 50th class reunion is still planned for October, but it’s by no means certain how many of us — those classmates who are still living after all these years, that is — will feel safe being in a room together.

What we’ve learned, more and more in fact, is this: nothing at all is certain.

The consternation many of us began to feel in our own tumultuous baby-boom adolescent era, as materialism and Vietnam and hypocrisy swallowing us up, was captured in Mike Nichols’s masterpiece, “The Graduate.” Yet as we donned caps and gowns,
we thought, and were told, that we could and change the world.
Yet the world changed us.

To those 2020 graduates, for whom the future seems to be melting into deeper uncertainty, with Earth itself heating, I pray they find inspiration in the activism of Greta Thunberg, Emma Gonzalez and David Hogg, along with Marley Dias, Autumn Peltier and Tokata Iron Eyes.

Repairing the world, buildng a just society: these are Sisyphean tasks. Yet to paraphrase the rabbinic Pirkei Avot teaching, "We're not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we allowed to walk away from the task."

Fifty years apart, or more, we all know: our voices are all needed if there is to BE a future. The only certainty we can count on these days is that we cannot remain silent or complacent.


* AFTER listening to Obama's message, which resonated once again with the best parts of our inner nature, it's clear we're at a crucial moment when our action matters more than ever.


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