You Thought You Were Free, but History Found You

The 2020 commencement speech you’ll never hear

An illustration of graduation caps being thrown above houses.
Getty / The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of commencement addresses commissioned by The Atlantic for students who will not be able to attend their graduations because of the pandemic. Find the collection here.

Class of 2020:

As I stand here on this glorious spring morning, wearing my day pajamas and staring out the window at my garbage cans, I can’t help thinking something’s wrong.

Isn’t there supposed to be some sheet cake involved? Not this year, I guess.

This has been a season of terrible losses. People have lost their lives, and families are grieving. Others have lost their jobs, their savings, their plans for the future. Many of you, I know, have suffered these things too. With losses on that order, it might seem frivolous to feel sad about losing your graduation ceremonies. But I don’t think so. A college graduation is a big deal; it’s important. And for many decades we have celebrated it in the same formal way—with pomp, circumstance and a lexicon of special terms—academic regalia; processing down the aisle; conferring of degrees. We want the day to be distinct, unmistakable, and linked to countless ceremonies of the past. No matter how many graduations I attend—and no matter how much of a hassle it is to get a parking space and catch the shuttle bus and find a seat—when the line of graduates finally appears and begins that last, long walk as college students, I feel like I might cry.

But you won’t get to have this very special event, four years in the making. Why not?

Because history found you.

An event that will change the way we live was sweeping around the globe, and it found you. As your long, strange spring break was extended week after week, the truth began to settle in: You were never going back to college. Not as a student, anyway. That part of your life had ended, and you never got to say goodbye to it.

History also found my father when he was in college, although he was a freshman, not a senior. He was a new student at Amherst College, and he thought it was paradise. He was finally free of the repressive Catholicism he’d grown up with, he was surrounded by free thinkers, and he was at last in a place where his great talent—writing—was valued above all others.

This was in the old days, when you sent your laundry home to your mother, wore a jacket and tie to class, attended compulsory Protestant chapel, and did anything else the dean of students told you to do.

This was a long, long time ago, the freshman year of Thomas Flanagan. Did I mention it was 1941?

He thought he was finally free, but history found him.

Those students knew that the world was rumbling around them, but they were in a New England college studying the poets and philosophers, and it was easy to imagine that the world was far away.

News of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor arrived on a Sunday afternoon in December. The next morning—Monday, December 8—virtually every man in that college walked into town, chose a branch of the armed services, and enlisted.

Soon enough, my teenage father was in Officer Candidate School, and then he was on a destroyer in the Pacific. There were no poets or philosophers on those ships, or maybe there were only poets and philosophers. But certainly there was history, day after day of it.

Now a whole generation of middle-aged men cannot get enough of World War II. They can watch a hundred documentaries on it, and they can talk about it for hours.

My father never talked about it. He just told some funny stories and—more or less un-discussed—kept an old Japanese rifle hanging from a peg over his writing desk.

I had zero interest in my father’s war experience—and that was fine with him. I think he spent the rest of his life trying to forget it.

But I did think about that story of all of the young men who walked away from college and toward a war. Once I asked him about it: “Dad, on that day when you went into town and enlisted in the Navy, what did you do after that?”

He looked at me as though I’d asked a silly question, and said simply, “I went to class.”

That’s what you did, too. You went to class.

You went to class in your childhood bedrooms and at your parents’ kitchen tables and sitting on front steps to find a little privacy. You did it with computers and Zoom and group chats. You wrote papers, you took notes during lectures, you did experiments in virtual labs, and you tackled complex problem sets.

It would have been easy not to do this. People all over the country were talking about how short their attention span had become, how they couldn’t read books anymore, how they hovered near televisions, watching the frightening news and wondering what would happen next. It would have been so easy to slide into Netflix and Instagram and worry.

But you—whom we celebrate today—you didn’t give up. You kept going, and now in this strange situation, without “Pomp and Circumstance”—with just me in my day pajamas and you in your childhood bedrooms scattered far away from all the friends you expected to be with on this important day—you have become college graduates.

And we are grateful, because we need you.

We need the poets and philosophers, the scientists and artists, the engineers, historians, writers, and businesspeople.

Most of all we need the free thinkers, because now more than ever before, we need people who can look at the world in a rational way and make decisions based on facts and reason.

I wish I could give all of you the graduation you deserve. I wish I could give all your parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles the chance to hear your name ring out, and see you walk across that stage and receive your diploma. I wish we could gather afterward and eat some of that sheet cake and take pictures and celebrate what you’ve accomplished.

But maybe you’ve gained something more important than any of that. Maybe as very young people you know something powerful: that you have been tested, and you did not falter. You kept going.

And although you’re entering a very different world from the one you expected, it’s a world that needs you. And because a commencement speech is supposed to contain some kind of essential information, some piece of wisdom passed down from aged speaker to youthful listener, here it is: Nothing in life is better than being needed.

I know—and your parents know and your professors know—that you are ready for what lies ahead.

Because you are the great Class of 2020. And you did not give up.

Dedicated to the author’s sons, Conor and Patrick Hudnut, and to her godson, Dean Smith—all members of the Class of 2020.