The class of 2020 is graduating into a new world.
While other classes have graduated into recessions, or wars or other uncertainty, this year’s batch of graduations is facing economic uncertainty, a global pandemic, a reckoning over systemic racism and the constant stream of information and disinformation on social media.
But at St. Mary, administrators are confident their students can deal with whatever the next months and years may bring.
“Our world changed in a way none of us asked for or wanted,” said St. Mary principal Mark Phaneuf, in his address to the school’s graduates.
Phaneuf’s remarks were included as part of a two-hour virtual graduation ceremony streamed on YouTube Thursday morning.
The ceremony also included prerecorded footage of students picking up their diploma in cap and gown, speeches from dignitaries, awards and reflections from students.
“Many characterize youth as lazy, entitled and selfish. I’d use the term essential. When the majority of society was ordered home … we stayed at home to protect our medical practitioners and caregivers … and ultimately, society.”
Many students, Phaneuf said, took on other roles – working on the frontlines at grocery stores, or in food pickup windows, or at gas stations or selling him supplies for an emergency plumbing repair.
Others, he said, took on unpaid jobs as caretakers and helpers.
“You pitched in and showed society and future generations how selfless and giving you are. You have served as the hands and feet of Christ for all society. Are you ready to be the leaders of tomorrow? You have demonstrated you already are.”
He thought back to mid-March, where school suddenly came to an end, and students were sent home, for good.
In a world, he said, dominated by social media like Snapchat, Instagram and Tiktok which focus on one instant in time, the pandemic reoriented people to think about the long term, the greater good, and what people could do for others.
“This student body, these Grade 12s and our school community showed they were ready to make sacrifices to do their part,” he said.
“The past 16 weeks are an example of what I have seen from this group for the past four years, how caring, mature and selfless this group is.”
That sudden change was also on the mind of Caleb Hammond, the valedictorian of this year’s St. Mary High School graduating class.
“It’s rather obvious that this year’s graduation is different,” he said.
“Where do we go from here? The COVID-19 pandemic undeniably poses a challenge. … Our generation faces much criticism. We’re lazy, we’re not ready to be adults, we’re soft, — though some of these may be true at times, I hope the pandemic has shown people otherwise.”
He thought back to March 16, the day stud4tns were told to go home.
“The sheer anxiety some of us felt … knowing that the year was over sooner than expected … we went home, not knowing if we would ever see each other again, We went home scared of what the future may bring. We still persevered.”
Students, he said, signed up for online classes, learned new skills and found jobs.
But it wasn’t just the pandemic Hammond reflected on.
He spoke about social media, how, “on a daily basis, we are confronted with new information about coronavirus, climate change, politics and other social injustices in the world.
“We are bombarded every day with information and disinformation at a tremendous volume,” he said.
“This poses a new problem for us.”
He quoted Nelson Mandela, who maintained that education is the most powerful weapon to change the world.
“St. Mary has given us the weapon of education that will separate fact from fiction and that will help us find solace int hat which is left unknown.”
He said he’s confident St. Mary students will come out on the right side of history.
“At the present day, our country and the rest of the world is dealing with a longstanding pressing issue that challenges where we go from here as it relates to racial injustices in society,” Hammond said.
“As a brown kid, I could not be prouder of our school’s ability to treat each and every student with equality. I have been blessed with the privilege of forming friendships with people who embraced my culture, not just tolerated it.”
Hammond related this moment in time with what St. Mary students have been taught, that they should love as Jesus loved. He said he’s seen his classmates practice that love.
“When we see acts of racism or any injustice for that matter, we are asked to stand up for what is right,” he said.
“Before we act, we must educate ourselves through uncomfortable and tough conversations with our families, friends, teachers, neighbours, politicians, leaders and enemies. We can help transform society’s views on racial biases.”
There’s a long way to go before systemic racism is ended, Hammond said, but he asserted that St. Mary students are leading the way. He encouraged his peers to evoke this year’s grad theme — love can change the world.
“One human alone cannot change the world,” he said. “it takes the love of you and me together to change it.”
He quoted from 1 Corinthians 13: “Love is patient, love is kind.”
He continued, that it does not envy, nor boast, nor is proud, nor rude or self-seeking, nor easily angered, nor does it keep a record of wrongs. It does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres.
While Corinthians ended there, Hammond continued on.
“Love does not tweet lies or promote hate and it is not silent. Love honours the physical , emotional, mental and spiritual health of others,” he said.
“It does not conceive stereotypes, prejudices or acts of discrimination against one’s skin colour, gender, against who someone chooses to love or against who someone chooses to be.
“Love does not kneel on the necks of the oppressed.
“I have seen that love in each and every one of you.
“Although today is the day to celebrate our accomplishments, tomorrow is the day to choose the future we want.”