Our Austin neighborhood held a blinking-headlights, pickup truck procession for high school, elementary and fifth grade graduates, who were showered with confetti as the vehicles moved slowly down the street. As today’s graduates, they walk into unknown territory—like those preparing for a spacewalk or a cross-country bike expedition.
None of us can predict what the next six months or six years will bring to them or us, but we can expect a changed world, requiring flexibility, maybe even more than book learning. Though that will not go to waste.
In the rush to succeed at life will each graduate carry with them some knowledge of the sacrifices made on their behalf by the community, their parents and teachers, and even those who have perished in the pandemic who lived within fifteen miles of their homes? Or the medical teams who worked to save them?
Do our graduates feel unscathed by the tragedy that has unfolded before our eyes so rapidly as to be missed in a healthy blink? Or will they carry an invisible scar deep within them that comes with the knowledge that life can change just that rapidly?
Not unworthy lessons if they also carry within them the antidotes so useful when a society, even a world, has been upended—confidence, not cockiness, but a sense that they carry within them the tools they will need to meet the challenges that life will bring. Part of the challenge here also falls on the parents, who through simple tasks doled out from an early age, show their children their trust in them and their abilities. Sure, the milk will spill, but it is a lot easier to have them clean that up now than it will be later.
Times like this the monumental challenge is to conjure optimism. Saying “this too shall pass” and we might find what is on the other side has more than a bit to recommend. What choice do we have? More importantly if we the elders do not show some optimism, why would the youth, who are the legacy for the future? Few are wearing rose-colored glasses but moving forward requires we begin to lift the gray cloud from our eyes.
Once an eon ago, when people made comparisons of approaches to education around the world, some admired the lengthy school day and rote learning offered every Japanese student. But upon closer examination they found that the American students, who had more flexibility, more exercise, and opportunity to puzzle out ideas, were better problem solvers and more inventive.
The proof, at least of the inventive nature of Americans, is in the number of patents approved by the US Patent and Trademark office in 2019—333,000. That is a lot of ingenuity and we are going to need every bit of it. So, the hope is that today’s graduates will use their individuality to join us in solving problems, create some new ones, and work together to unscramble the future!
Need parting advice from Lincoln. Part of his genius—his curiosity–carried him in many directions and made his struggles easier to bear. Abe was the only sitting President to hold a US patent for a device that helped lift barges and ships off sandbars, a problem that had played around in his mind since his youth, but he finalized over his Presidential desk–worked something like a bellows. His interest in Euclid’s Geometry, complicated indeed without an instructor’s help, won him a dinner date with the well-educated Mary Todd. He spent a year during the Civil War consuming all the books West Pointers read about battle strategy, so he could converse intelligently and review battle plans, sending telegraph messages into the field—the first President to do so. That’s more than curiosity. He believed in learning something every day. He said: “I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday.”
In parting, I will say that I did not attend my college graduation from Indiana University—may parents never really forgave me, their eldest. I had a reporting job lined up, beginning two weeks to the day after my last exam. I knew once I started work I would not have a vacation for a year. So, I visited Galveston, burned like the Yankee I was and hobbled around the Houston Space Center on sunburned feet. A vacation I never forgot.
Encourage curiosity and find an imaginary flight of fancy for these graduates or plan a trip, even a family fishing trip with plenty of time to reminisce. That will provide a proper send-off and launch them onto their own life adventures!