The Class of ’23 navigated COVID. They will be fine

Sit down a minute. I want to tell you a story.

When Ronald Reagan was President, I graduated from the University of Maryland, grabbed the Pinto, and headed back to Missouri, the sour stench of defeat haunting me.

I should have been happy, but I went to school up east to get a job at the Washington Post. I was sure the Post needed me for all the great journalists there to hunt down ambassadors, fill out profiles and launch the next Watergate-like investigation.

I had done everything to achieve this goal. I worked for the campus newspaper, did freelance work for a local newspaper, and did an internship at the now-defunct Baltimore Evening Sun. One of my first assignments there was to be a witness when the police pulled a decomposing body out of a terraced house chimney. I don’t remember how that corpse got stuffed down that chimney. All I remember is that the assignment was a test dreamed up by an old-school editor who was skeptical of me. I was the new wave of college-educated journalists, dressed for success in a formal blazer and a white shirt with a big bow. I figured that if I refused to go – or soiled the bow by throwing up on it afterwards – I wouldn’t be taken seriously. I didn’t do either, and on my last day as an intern, this editor brought me a strawberry shortcake from Haussner’s.

What he didn’t do was hire me. I was in an army of wannabes that invaded journalism after Watergate, ready to fight for democracy. For a number of years, news outlets—particularly newspapers—had a choice of trash, a category I didn’t fall into. So I headed west, back to Joplin, to write obituaries, which had been my part-time job before I left. The only thing that had changed as far as I could tell was that now when I called these funeral homes with the 40 or so people (with a gruff “Hi. Joplin Globe. Do you have any?”), I did this now as a graduate.

On that blue highway home, I watched my life unfold. obituaries. club news. The occasional feature. Maybe I’d set fires once the guy who’d been doing this since the Korean War went to his forever home (and I wrote his obituary). In the meantime I would marry – probably someone who also worked at the newspaper, because who else could endure the ridiculous hours of a journalist. We would live in a double wide south of the city. We would acquire some cattle and some children in that order. Maybe I would learn to cook. And then I’d probably get a divorce because Dream Husband would be sick of all the dinners I missed.

I once read on a t-shirt that a rut is just a grave with worn ends and I felt like going to my funeral. I knew I should be happy. I knew I should be proud of myself, but most of all, with the world-weary wisdom of a 21-year-old, I was disappointed in the ordinary life I was about to begin.

Does that sound as unbearable to you as it does to me? Of course there was no Dream Husband, no cattle, no Double Wide – and no job at the post office. Instead, there was travel and belly laughs and great co-workers and tight deadlines and challenging interviews and new time zones and so much to know that at some point I stopped pretending I was smart and started learning.

Around this time every year, I tell this story—or a version of it—to the students at my college. We’re wrapping up our spring classes this week, and from here it’s graduation projects and papers and grades that feel like they’ll never end until they finally do.

More specifically, for seniors, jumping out of the high dive means, well, they’re not sure what yet. They’ve spent most of their lives in the school that supposedly prepared them for this jump. Are you ready? Probably. Are you afraid? You bet. One student actually asked in class, “After we graduate, are you going to just…kick us…I don’t know…out?”

Yes. We do it. And you? Is going to be alright. You will be better than good. Do you know how I know this? Because I watched her. They’ve weathered this impossible pandemic and home issues and financial issues and health issues and stupid roommates, and while they might have thought about quitting, this harvest hasn’t. They will have to face harder things, but let me remind them that they got through it all when they were barely adults.

I can’t predict what’s in store for the high school seniors. All I can tell you is that I’m pretty sure parts of it will be great. We did our best to prepare them, but I hope most importantly we taught them to stay humble and keep learning. Within the month – maybe the week – a new technology will come their way that will prove vital. If they haven’t already, they will work with people who don’t share their politics, who have different definitions of things they thought were immutable, and that vague life they dreamed of will melt away to be through something far More interesting to be replaced.

Susan Campbell is the author of Frog Hollow: Stories from an American Neighborhood, Tempest-Tossed: The Spirit of Isabella Beecher Hooker, and Dating Jesus: A Story of Fundamentalism, Feminism and the American Girl. She is Distinguished Lecturer at the University of New Haven, where she teaches journalism.

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