Hey Class of 2020,
Shit is rough, but you are wonderful. And the wonderfulness of you will endure, in the exact way that the rain pouring in my backyard right now will not. Uncertainty defines everything, yes, but I know this because I’ve seen who you are and what you can do.
I had a conversation with some of you today about how you come to trust people and the expectations you have for the relationships you’ve got and the ones you’ll build, and the courage that’s taught you how to understand and embrace criticism, and to speak truth to power. People might laugh this off as “wokeness,” or your would-be employers might avoid you because your school has a reputation for producing graduates that say what’s on their minds. That’s because they’re afraid. They’re afraid of embracing a new mindset, a new way of framing things that may require them making concessions or redistributing their power, a recompense for their own conservative actions and shortsightedness, especially in your chosen realm of STEM.
Though it may not happen immediately, and though you will no doubt find yourself at the unforgiving whims of a tanked economy, you will one day find workplaces that do not see your brave curiosity as a liability, but rather as a benefit, a key part in their strategy. Whether your work fulfills you or you yearn for something more, you can become an activist. You can engage with your community in so many ways that are sorely needed – you can volunteer, teach, discuss, mentor, build. The skills you have brought with you to your learning and have honed throughout your education will keep you going in this work, in ways that many folks (including me) have had to develop through studying and peer guidance much later in life.
If you struggle to find your feet beneath you as you move on to this next stage, fear not; this is the natural course of things. Maybe the most important things millennials like me can bestow upon Gen Z is that 1) the “insert college degree, expect economic prosperity” model has been proven a myth for some time now, 2) your life is going to feel like a series of fits and starts, “forever delayed,” 3) it’s really alright if you don’t go straight from point A to points B and C, etc., and 4) all of this is not a personal indictment of you. You are living through history, as are we all–and what’s more, subject to a timeline that is not human.
I want to spend a little more time on point 4 because this is where I stumbled the most when I graduated in 2009. Shit was rough then, too, but there at least was no global pandemic to contend with. I moved just outside Boston a few weeks after I received my degree on a frigid day in upstate New York. I tagged along with a group of people I hardly knew but, I thought, had the right idea in bouncing out of town. That summer was cruel, and our painstaking spring this year brings it back; it rained 27 of 30 days in June. I had nothing much to do, though, no job and no prospects, so I walked the streets of Waltham until I knew them like the hilly, curving roads of my hometown.
Eventually my money ran out and I took a job at the CVS in Wellesley that’s closest to campus. I was the photo lab manager, but I still felt a shame that I carried around like an unshakeable aura; I felt like I’d failed myself, my parents, my brother who was currently working on a PhD in computer science, my boyfriend at the time, a chemistry major who had snagged a job downtown. We didn’t have a proper darkroom at the store so I used to have to go down to the basement with the lights all turned off, stumbling over the off-season merchandise, to change the photo printer paper cartridges. I got told to smile more about 40 times a day. My shift leader, Elio, was from Peru and had a master’s degree in mechanical engineering but he was stuck working at this stupid photo lab-less CVS along with John, another 2009 grad who was trying to get on the fast track to store management. They tried to entice me down that road, too; at the time, the chain was targeting an expansion in Hawaii, and I remember being told I could wind up there if I wanted to stick with it. “They’ll need all kinds of managers in Honolulu, Cal!”
I quit a couple weeks into the new year, 2010. I had decided to go back to school at this point, to get my Masters of Science in Library and Information Science from Simmons then-College-now-University. I still needed money–needed it more, with that first tuition bill in my hands–but a phone call with a customer on Christmas Eve, amidst all the last-minute purchases of tape and candy canes, so many candy canes, had put me over the edge.
“CVS Wellesley Central, this is Callan speaking, how can I help you?”
“I’m calling to see if you have any Snuggies1. They’re the last thing on my list and I know you have them.”
“Let me go double-check – I haven’t seen any in the store, but I’ll look around. One moment while I put you on a quick hold. … Ma’am, are you still there? We don’t have any Snuggies on the shelf or in storage, unfortunately.”
“(scoffs) Are you lying to me?”
“I said, Are. You. Lying. To. Me?”
“No, ma’am. I just checked our stock and -“
“I know you’re lying. I’m going to come down there and I’m going to get you in so much trouble when I prove that you lied.”
“Don’t try to explain yourself, liar. I’m coming down there right now.” *click*
For the record, she never came down, but after a few months of this kind of nonsense and men throwing newspapers at me when I asked them to walk five feet over to an open checkout station, I was all set. I left CVS and took a job north of Boston at a hair salon software company and built websites for stylists and spas in New England for a few months, and it was also terrible and unpleasant for a different set of reasons, and then started my program at Simmons almost exactly a year to the day after I arrived in Massachusetts. I lived in a different apartment with different people by then. I’d lost some friends and made some new ones. I got my cats.
So, happily ever after, right? Lol, no. It took me years, including a cross-country move, a stint in a mildly successful electronic goth band, a failed marriage, and the death of my grandmother and near-death of my brother to get me even close to “on track.” I went from point A to point Q to some point not even identifiable in this alphabetic system before I got to point B. When I thought I’d gotten all of the deliberate fucking up out of my system, I got involved with a person and almost ruined my career, or ran myself out of it, in the aftermath. The day the sense got knocked into me wasn’t even when I woke up in the hospital after a hit-and-run, but probably the night two months after that when a set of stairs collapsed under me in Allston while I was carrying my bike out of the house of a giant asshole who was not only two-timing me with someone half his age but also constantly texting her while I was around (thanks loads, Tinder). And even after that, I have continued to fuck up. I have fucked up prodigiously in these last ten years and I’ll probably fuck up routinely forever, but you know what? That’s the deal. We’re all on board for it. There’s nothing you can do to stop the majority of your own fuckups, but you can do one thing to help you through it. You can remember point 4.
4) all of this is not a personal indictment of you
I have gotten to know some of you better than others, but all of you are impressive to me. The things I’ve seen you build, the teams I’ve seen you working with, the speeches you gave before we all scattered to the four winds. Your tolerance for ambiguity, your willingness to speak up, your honesty and your knowledge of the importance of consensus, something folks my age and older struggle with, sometimes indefinitely. I didn’t have much time with you, but the 5-6 months I had was enough to make me a little weepy as I sit here and imagine not seeing you on campus anymore. “Man, your shoes are hard to replace.” But that’s part of the deal, too–you must go on, and you must fuck up outside the bounds of our campus, and that may well mean that for fuck’s sake, you must be the change you want to see, even if people might think that makes you a know-it-all fuck, because we’ve never fucking needed it more.
I’ve been sitting here staring out at the rainy dark for a while without many ideas for a good closing paragraph, so I’ll leave you with someone else’s words. They are a more eloquent way of stating the first sentence of this speech: “Shit is rough, but you are wonderful.” You were, after all, challenged to “do something” when you came to us, and I share this in the spirit of challenging you to keep at it after you go, even if your life is a mess because you’re stuck at point Q trying to placate the Snuggie lady.
“Nature teaches persistence and perseverance, because in the end nothing stops nature. If a rose can grow out of the concrete, so can we.”– Micah Hobbes Frazier, kind of quoting Tupac Shakur, quoted in adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy
- I’m pretty freaked out about how quickly culture shifts nowadays, so in case you don’t know, a Snuggie is an “As Seen on TV” sleeved blanket that became something of a cult during my CVS days.