To The Class of 2020

When I first tried adult coloring books – you know, the ones with intricate patterns and numerous details and fancy mandalas – I was so excited to use my pretty metallic pens while listening to podcasts after the kids went to bed. But I was also overwhelmed. I would sit with a picture like, choose the colors I wanted to use, and then put the others aside (I didn’t want to get mixed up, you know.) But then as I began to color, I would notice so much more detail than I originally could see. The patterns I had created in my head would be ruined before I’d had a chance to bring them to life. I’d have to choose more colors or leave more spaces blank, possibly next to a space that had also been affected by the necessary pattern changing. 

Gradually, I leaned into the uncertainty. I would pick up a coloring book from my growing collection, select my favorite picture, and then turn to one I only liked a little bit – and *that* is where I would start. I’d choose colors I thought might be disparate, settle on a possible pattern in my mind, and dig in. Once I had completed a few of these rough drafts with pictures that were not my favorite, I would choose one or two beautiful colors and start in on my fave from that book.  And I would work on it intermittently, sometimes coloring less favored and less detailed pictures in-between sessions of coloring in my fave. In time, that feeling of irritation at having to re-imagine how I’d color in my masterpieces dissipated, and too, I began to find that some of my favorite pictures looked best with only one or two colors distributed deliberately, rather than every beautiful color in my collection.

Here is the truth, Class of 2020: Most of us did not see this pandemic coming. If we are fortunate, we each were happily settled into our favorite versions of our lives. We were going about our daily routines in a happy, busy, hum of activity. We had selected a canvas upon which to color by making choices regarding spouse and career and location, and we were just sitting and doodling. But this pandemic was not a part of the pattern that we could see until we were already settled well into this life. So here we all are, stuck in this moment in time – some of us protesting against it as if we can believe ourselves into invincibility in the name of liberty, some of us cowering in our own homes behind towers of hoarded TP and homemade masks, some of us alternating between praying and cussing and arguing and forgiving – all of us desperate to make this all make sense.  

But it just won’t.

We can’t force this time in our lives to fit neatly into the pattern we planned. 

Some of you have worked your whole academic careers to earn that spot in the top ten percent of your class to secure your scholarships. Some of you are the first in your family to complete high school, and you were excitedly looking forward to the whoops and cheers and air horns from your crowd of family as they watched you do what they never have. Some of you are plugged into your communities already as mentors for younger kids, and you know what it means for those kids to see you accomplish this milestone.

And now they can’t.

I want to apologize to you that the last glorious months of your high school career were stolen from you. But I also have to tell you that our collective global history could have given you no better life lesson than to screw up your plans. Every bit of life after high school graduation is about making plans and then having them ruined. 

Life is about the first real job you get being the job of your dreams, only to find out it doesn’t pay enough to cover both rent *and* student loan payments. 

Life is about marrying your high school sweetheart – the girl next door – only to discover yourselves growing apart rather than growing together.

Life is about sharing photos of your dream house with your best friend, only to watch them buy it before you’ve gotten a down payment together.

Life is about the million, billion wrong decisions you make that you can’t blame on anyone else, appointments you schedule but fail to make, the heartache of being ghosted by your best college friend.

Life is about the mess we can’t plan for but have to roll with. We as your teachers and parents and mentors could have taught you no better lesson than this: An adult life that is well and successfully lived, is chock full of emotional low points that turn into fuel to move forward.

The low-paying job of your dreams prompts you to create the non-profit that provides emotional and financial support for all in your profession.

The high school sweetheart-turned-spouse-turned-ex, simply was meant for another life, as are you. Your relationship and love for each other can remain as whole and supportive as they ever were, even as they take a different shape.

The dream house you couldn’t afford would only have ruined your credit score, and your cozy starter home can become as welcoming and dream-like as your imagination and budget allow.

I welcomed the class of 2020 into my Freshman English classroom four years ago. They tried my patience. They pushed and questioned me at every turn. They refused to complete assignments I left for a sub. They did all but pick up my beautiful box of colored pens and threw them at me and my lesson plans. They kept me on my toes. They forced me to grow. They jostled and struggled until together, we found the colors and patterns that fit our vision of what my classroom needed to be.

In the final analysis, life teaches us that we cannot choose our most perfect, beautiful picture and execute its pattern perfectly – not even if we practice first. All of our striving and planning and strategizing do not guarantee us the happy, idyllic life we so earnestly desire. Rather, we strive and plan and strategize so that we can find the joy and purpose in whatever life throws our way.

And you already know this, Class of 2020, but it bears repeating: this time in your life is not an ending but a beginning – a true commencement into the realness of life. Thanks to this global shutdown during a formative time in your life, you are uniquely equipped to handle the challenges that will undoubtedly continue come your way. Go confidently and boldly into this world, and color it with all the beauty and resilience of who you are.