We Failed Our High School Seniors. They Will Do Better.

Today I’m venturing beyond the normal subject matter of my blog to share a more personal reflection.  For those who prefer reading about marketing and media, my apologies for this deviation.  For What It’s Worth will return to its regular programming with my next post.

We let down our high school seniors and they have every right to be pissed.  The Class of 2021 includes more than 3 million high school seniors across the country, including my daughter.  Looking at the events of the past 12 months between the pandemic and the election it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that we the parents, and any adult who feels some sense of obligation to the next generation, failed these young people. 

Just look at it from their perspective.  Senior year is normally a magical time filled with events and rituals celebrating the first major step into adulthood.  Instead they’ve been socially isolated.  Denied or severely restricted from attending school.  Forbidden from participating in sports, plays, dances, concerts, recitals or other activities.  And does anyone think graduation will be normal?  So they can expect to be robbed of one final chance to excel and celebrate their accomplishments. 

Another rite of passage for many high school seniors is turning 18 and voting for the first time.  I don’t care what your politics are, can any adult seriously look back at the 2020 election and say with a straight face we set a good example?

It would be easy for me or any other parent to deflect blame.  I didn’t start the pandemic.  I didn’t make the rules, or change them repeatedly, about how we should respond.  I didn’t participate in a political campaign, spread blatantly false information on social media or storm the Capitol.  Don’t blame me, it’s not my fault.

The problem with that mindset is it rejects any sense of communal responsibility.  It denies the reality that it is the actions of individuals, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, that define our communities and culture. 

My guess is that every parent reading this at some point taught their child some version of the golden rule – treat others as you wish to be treated.  Inherent in this notion is that all of us have some responsibility for the well-being of our neighbor.  No matter your political or religious beliefs, humans intuitively understand that we are communal creatures.  No one exists in a vacuum. 

It is on this basis that I believe none of us, not you or me, can get away with saying “it’s not my fault.”

So where does that leave us?  Humbled, definitely.  Contrite, if we are honest about our collective responsibilities.  But most importantly, hopeful.  Hopeful that despite everything we have raised a generation of young people poised to do better than us.

For one thing, they can show us how to use social media responsibly.  It’s quite ironic, at least for me.  I, like many parents I know, have complained about the negative impact of social media on kids: the bullying, excessive emphasis on looks and image, constant selfies and endless hours wasted staring at screens.  All that is true.  But to me that pales in comparison to the damage done by adults on social media this past year.  Let’s be honest, adults complaining about kids on social media is hypocritical.  We could learn a lot from these kids.  I believe they will do a much better job responsibly incorporating social media into our culture than we did.

I believe this group of young people will be much more resilient.  The error, and sometimes tragedy, of youth is to take things for granted.  Yet after the experiences of the past year it’s difficult to imagine any of them assuming ever again their lives are immune to the inevitable hardships life will bring.  It’s been painful to watch sometimes but they’ve learned to adapt and overcome in ways we never imagined as kids.  It will serve them, and us, well in the future.

They will learn from our other mistakes.  We forgot that decency and kindness matter, a lot.  They won’t.  We fear, and too often persecute, those different from us.  They’re more tolerant.  We argue about masks, social distancing and quarantines.  But regardless of where one stands on those issues, I believe these kids will emerge from these debates more aware of the impact their actions can have on others.  Yes, these kids may take too many selfies, but this experience will make them less selfish than us. 

It may seem like wishful thinking on my part right now given the huge divide in our country over basic facts, but I also suspect that they intuitively understand better than we do that THE truth is more important than “your truth” or “my truth.”

Finally, it’s worth noting for all our mistakes, our kids will undoubtedly take to heart the countless examples of doctors, nurses, medical professionals, first responders, workers in essential services and teachers who have put the needs of the community before their own.

Last year I wrote in my open letter to the Class of 2020 at the start of the pandemic that the universe has a way of balancing the scales and better things lie ahead.  I believe that now more than ever.  In the wake of our mistakes over the past year, we have hope for the future.  Our kids, the high school seniors of 2021, have seen the error of our ways and will do better.  It’s happened before in our history, and it will do so again. 

Enjoy your closing days of senior year, Class of 2021.  We made you grow up too fast in the past year.  But take heart, our mistakes and the experiences of your disrupted senior year are the seeds of a brighter future for you and all of us.  The best is yet to come.

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