By SERENA KLEIN ’20 and CAMERON KEATING ’20
Who sits at your dinner table? Or, in this case, who is the company on your Zoom video call? For the class of 2020, it is brilliant orators and talented performers such as Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Malala Yousafzai, Barack and Michelle Obama, among others.
On Sunday, June 7, celebrities and students alike came together to record virtual commencement speeches in honor of the class of 2020, as typical graduation celebrations were cancelled in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Youtube’s “Dear Class of 2020” presentation synthesized singing performances, student cameos, and high-profile speeches. Celebrities like Beyonce and politicians like the Obamas joined a cast of Youtube creators and social media stars to give the Class of 2020—including high school and college graduates—a semblance of the graduation they deserve.
While the Class of 2020, under normal circumstances, may have received typical graduation speeches with generic messages from their peers and administrators, the tone of this virtual ceremony was noticeably different.
In recent months, Americans have had to grapple with multiple crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and its resultant economic collapse. People became sick and died, hospitals were overwhelmed with patients, governors issued stay-at-home orders. Most businesses closed and workers lost their jobs. And as schools transitioned to remote instruction indefinitely, seniors lost their senior year of high school and all of the perks it entails—chiefly, Prom and graduation.
Students were coming to terms with these crises. But less than two weeks ago, when the world watched police officer Derek Chauvin murder George Floyd, our nation’s racial inequalities, already exacerbated by the global pandemic, sparked a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. This case of police brutality demanded that America reckon with her race issue.
Thus, the speeches began by addressing the country’s current climate. Award-winning singer Alicia Keys began the program, her words addressing the reality of the past few weeks, she opened “The world feels broken right now.” Confronting the history of slavery in America, former First Lady Michelle Obama expanded on Keys’ point
“Our foundation has been shaken, not just by a pandemic… but also by the rumbling of the age-old fault lines that our country was built on,” Obama laments. Beyoncé Knowles even confirmed the status quo as “a racial pandemic.”
With many students and ordinary Americans feeling confused and anxious, Michelle Obama commiserated with those students undergoing the stress of a stay-at-home order and a shift to virtual instruction.
“You weren’t just adjusting to online class, you were helping your teacher adjust your audio. You weren’t just on the group chat with your friends, you were helping them in this time of loss,” the former first lady added. Openly gay actor Billy Porter addressed the loss of identity which self-quarantine necessitates.
“For some of you school was not just a place to go, but a place for you to lean into your authenticity,” Potter said.
And yet, despite all of the challenges students face right now, the speakers expressed hope for the future because as comedian John Mulaney shared in his speech of random wisdoms, “Things will get better, they always do.” In addition, former Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice shared her experience of growing up as a Black woman in Jim Crow Alabama.
“The harsh reality which marks the end of your journey today will one day pass,” she articulated. A spoken word performance of Maya Angelou’s poetry by Tracee Ellis Ross, Janelle Monae, and others further illuminated the hope which lies ahead, “But still like dust, I rise.”
As the Class of 2020 now grapples with the tumultuous times of the present, they will undoubtedly overcome this moment, as the late opera singer Beverly Sills once said, “There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.” Michelle Obama learned this lesson when her father and best friend died within a year of each other.
“I would’ve given anything to get them back. But that experience gave me clarity. I had to forge a new path. A path more focused on community and service,” Obama asserts. And there’s a reason for the Class of 2020 to have hope now; Google CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrated that the Class of 2020 is not the only class to confront adversity at the time of their graduation. Fifty years ago, the Class of 1970 graduated at the height of the Vietnam War, and nineteen years ago, the Class of 2001 entered college and the workforce right before the attacks of 9/11. Our shared history proves we can conquer the difficulties which plague us today.
Hence, the Class of 2020’s graduation deserves celebration.
“Don’t let the lack of a big, crowded ceremony take away from your achievements,” former President Barack Obama states. On June 16, 2020—at least for Edison High School—the Class of 2020 will graduate, and it will be a momentous occasion, for, as Youtubers ASAPScience described, we will join a cohort of “3.7 million graduating high school students this year” whose “hearts beat 1.46 million times over the past four years,” as “the Earth traveled 3.76 billion kilometers” through space. This event will, for many, be the first major achievement in a lifetime of success, as Imere Williams, senior at a Philadelphia charter school, highlights the words of Malcolm X, “Education is the passport to the future.”
The celebrities continued this message of optimism with praise for the graduates. Beyoncé recognized the gravity of this moment for the new generation.
“You are the dreams your grandparents never could have hoped for. You are the answers to a generation of prayers,” the singer said. These young people have the power to confront today’s crises.
“We can see so clearly what injustice looks like. And we can choose how to respond,” Alicia Keys remarked.
And now, Class of 2020, as you move onto your next steps in life, remember to follow your passions. Pichai wants you to “Take the time to find the thing that excites you more than anything in the world, not the thing your parents want you to do, or the thing society expects you to.” Beyoncé’s message is similar,.
“Keep betting on yourself,” she said.
Still, the speakers want to honor those special people who supported the Class of 2020 through their arduous four years of education. Parents, friends, community members, spiritual leaders, and everyone in between. The founder of Khan Academy, a free online education platform, Sal Khan shared a message to teachers.
“If I had to pick between an amazing teacher and amazing technology, I’d choose the teacher every time,” Khan remarked. The gift of an excellent educator who boasts compassion and dedication is truly indelible; she leaves her mark on every student she encounters.
Here at EHS, the Class of 2020 will surely miss these Edison High School teachers next year, but their legacies will remain within the minds of their students.
And to Ms. Grubb, Ms. Curcio, Ms. Frey, and Ms. Corsun: we love you.