Sorry, graduates, we meant to have the world cleaned up by now

Graduation Issue

Sorry, graduates, we meant to have the world cleaned up by now
Young Kwak photo
Jess Walter's next novel is due out in October.

To the class of 2020 —

First off, an apology.

From all of us: the liberals and conservatives, the libertarians and socialists, the bakers, brokers and tattoo artists, the boomers, Xers and millennials, the self-righteous and self-deluded and the just plain selfish, we generations of greedy, short-sighted "adults" who threw a big seventy-year party, ate all the food, drank all the beer, used all the resources, blew your inheritance, pissed on the carpet and passed out on the floor.

Sorry. Our bad.

We meant to have the world cleaned up by now, by the day of your high school and college graduations. But, well, there was this economic crisis and then we overslept and we lost our way and, um ... the dog ate our regulatory agencies. (And have you seen the other side? They are so freaking partisan! It really is their fault; they should clean it all up.)

Point being: we knew the world was a mess and instead of getting together and cleaning it all up, we argued and dithered and made it all worse. We elected a divisive clown as president. We got drunk and gave all the money to billionaires. We took Democracy out for a joyride and dented it up pretty good, and now it runs like crap.

The climate, school shootings, racism, politics — everything got worse in the last four years, and then this deadly pandemic arrived, and did we band together behind a singular science-driven national plan to fight it? Nope.

We put on an American flag diaper and grabbed our assault rifle and marched to protest medical professionals having the absolute nerve to try to save our lives.

Oops. Sorry about that.

Traditionally, your commencement speaker would now pivot to the uplifting part of the speech in which he or she tells you to TAKE HEART because YOUR GENERATION WILL BE THE ONE TO SOLVE THESE PROBLEMS!


Oh, that would be just like us, wouldn't it? Screw everything up and then expect you to fix it. (Hey, my 401K still looks good, all things considered. And you know how much equity I have in this house? You deal with the rising oceans, I'll be at the golf course, because, you know, it's open now.)

That's why I'm not going to call on you brilliant, beautiful graduates to clean up this steaming pile of 2020.

Because it's not your responsibility.

Not yet.

It will be, soon enough, but for now, the last thing you need is that kind of pressure.

Instead, I'll just ask one thing of you and then you can go back to making fun of me on your phone. (I know that's what you're doing.)

The one thing is this:


Have your say. Prove the experts wrong. We greedy old ignorant screw-ups are two to three times more likely to vote than you are. The quickest way for you to take the keys away from us before we crash into anything else is to flex that demographic muscle of yours, the one the political parties have cynically bet you won't use.

Nationwide, seven million of you are graduating from high school and college this year. If just half of you voted this November, you could change the course of history.

The other thing I'd ask is that you give us one more chance to get our shit together.

I can't promise we'll do it, of course. I mean, you know us. We talk a good game, then somebody posts something funny on Facebook and the next thing you know a year has passed.

But maybe we've learned our lesson. Because as stupid as we've been, we really do love you, and maybe that's what will finally get us to clean up our act. Maybe we'll find the vacuum cleaner and take all this carbon out to the recycling bin and return some expectation of fairness and justice to our economic and political systems.

And you? What should you do? Other than vote?



Take a walk. Hang a hammock in the park. Skip rocks at the river. When it's safe, dance. Fall in love. See the world if you get the chance. I'm sorry for the shortage of jobs — I hope it will be temporary.

Go to college or grad school when you can. On-line and, when it's possible, in person. Read and learn and have great conversations, not because school might lead to a lucrative career, but for the sake of learning, for your soul. Fall in love (again.) Go on a long bike ride. Learn to catch a Frisbee between your legs. Shoot some hoops.

Learn an instrument. Write a song. Record it on your phone and send it to me. Dance some more. Fall in love (a third time.)

You know. Live.

And then, this fall, vote, and check back with us.

Hopefully, we'll have done a little better by then.

Really, Class of 2020, we could not be prouder of you.

I hope, one day soon, you'll be able to say the same about us. ♦

Jess Walter is the author of eight books and a proud graduate of East Valley High School and Eastern Washington University. His newest novel, The Cold Millions, comes out in October.

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