A message for our recent high school graduates:
The last few months have been sad and difficult. Some of us have lost loved ones, some of us have lost jobs, and some of us both. Our graduating seniors lost their last few months of high school, spring sports, special time with friends, and traditional commencement ceremonies. Summer jobs, college, and work plans have gotten complicated. The unemployment rate is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. Well over 100,000 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19. More than 400,000 have died worldwide. And the pandemic is still spreading aggressively throughout the world.
As if this were not enough, in Minneapolis, on May 25, Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and killed him. A few months earlier, on Feb. 23, Gregory and Travis McMichael, father and son, killed Ahmaud Arbery in Glynn County, Georgia – and almost got away with it. Between the two murders, on March 13, Breonna Taylor was shot (at least 8 times) and killed in her apartment by three Louisville police officers. I could keep going. Racism, systemic racism, intolerable police practices, the pandemic, the economy. Sexual assault and the rise of the Me Too movement. Immigration policies, LGBT rights, and the opioid crisis. Climate change, gun violence, healthcare. And the longest war in U.S. history – which began before our graduating high school seniors were born – continues in Afghanistan. A bitterly divided country, a Congress in partisan gridlock, and a president neither capable nor interested in bringing us together. In a world with too much poverty, too much war, and too much injustice.
Yet I am hopeful. Hopeful because a group of high school students organized a small vigil in Henry Law Park last week expecting a few people to show up – and a few thousand did – young and old, of all races, peacefully, and wearing masks. And then again, a protest march this past Saturday, from Kittery to Portsmouth, organized by teenagers and drawing thousands. It’s happening all over the Seacoast right now. All over the country – and all over the world. Young people are showing up, fed up and fired up. And we are hearing black voices, almost exclusively, at these vigils and protests – up front, leading, teaching, showing the way – with heart and intelligence, focused on the moment, and on the future. It seems the energy has been building for weeks, decades, a century or two. Perhaps for 401 years. Maybe, too, I’m just hopeful because I can’t imagine what else to be. And maybe because I’ve spent the better part of the past 25 years working with – and being inspired by – high school students.
Yet I’m worried this might be just one more moment – in a long series of such moments – that comes and goes and gets away from us – without producing the real, lasting change we need. With this in mind, I’d like to humbly offer just one thought – a suggestion or proposal of sorts – for the Class of 2020. My hope is you’ll find a little time to consider it. I’m sure many of you are several steps ahead of me and already have. I believe it might very well be the key to all of this. Please decide for yourself. Here it is – in just one sentence…
If you haven’t already, please consider a personal commitment to making your life more difficult, harder, more challenging, less comfortable – to whatever degree you’re able.
Put another way, in just a few words – sacrifice courageously. Compassionately. Please.
Real change on critical matters doesn’t come easy. Posting your support on social media is helpful, but very far from enough. Very, very far from enough. Showing up at protests is good and necessary, but far from enough. Voting every chance you have is absolutely essential, but not enough. You must relentlessly educate yourself on the issues and the candidates, advocate tirelessly and strategically for them, and put your money behind your convictions. Do not give till it feels good. Give till it hurts. In every way possible. Sacrifice.
It’s easy to read Ibram Kendi’s “How To Be An Antiracist.” Harder to learn from it and live the lessons every day. Boycotting the Kittery Trading Post (because the owner is adamant about selling semi-automatic assault weapons) is ridiculously easy. Choosing to go head to head with the NRA, and never give up, is another story. It’s pretty easy – and convenient – to make assumptions and generalizations based on race, or about privilege, or based on political affiliations, or about the police. It’s not particularly easy or convenient to remember we are all individuals. We are all human beings. And progress is about all of us. Recycling is easy. But it seems we’re just not capable of consuming less. It’s easy to take for granted our nation’s democracy and the U.S. Constitution at the heart of it. It’s a lot harder to fight for it. Hopefully we’ll realize this before it’s too late.
Please make your life more difficult, harder, more challenging, less comfortable. Sacrifice courageously. Compassionately. It may be the only way to real and lasting change. And for whatever it’s worth, I believe it’s probably the best path to a life well lived. Genuinely well lived. Passionately, lovingly, and deeply well lived. Can you give up on the world around you – and find fulfillment, peace of mind, and real happiness? Can you put your head in the sand and live in denial – and find fulfillment, peace of mind, and real happiness? Can you care just enough to do only what is easy – and find fulfillment, peace of mind, and real happiness?
Feel the pain of others, of the world around you, let yourself cry, and then give of yourself till it hurts. And, funny thing is, it will come to feel good. Genuinely, deeply, intensely good. And the world will be a better place. Because of you.
John Shea is a resident of Portsmouth. He has served as principal of Spaulding High School, Somersworth High School, and as the upper school director at Berwick Academy. He is currently working on educational initiatives in the U.S. and internationally.