From the overpriced, exclusive cul-de-sacs and communities bordering the Potomac including Georgetown and The Palisades to more economically-challenged neighborhoods which lie east of the Anacostia, youth who have long-anticipated marching to “Pomp and Circumstance,” sporting their caps and gowns while holding their high school or college diplomas proudly above their heads, find their dreams shattered.
With over 96,000 Americans having already succumbed to complications from COVID-19 and with stay-at-home orders disrupting every facet of life for the past several months, youth who have stayed the course realize that they’ll never experience the excitement of senior class trips to amusement parks or sun-soaked beaches, prom festivities or commencement ceremonies.
Denied the opportunity to hang out with their friends, except through social media virtual encounters, many now battle to shake off depression, despondency, melancholy and the blues.
As a judge in the greater Washington area for African-American high school students in the region’s NAACP’s ACT-SO achievement program, I recently critiqued the works of youth competing in the categories of original essay and short story who sought to advance from the district competition to the national finals.
Additionally, I, along with my colleagues on the panel of adjudicators, had the chance to listen to these bright, children of color who shared their hopes, dreams and fears.
Their thoughts harkened me to a poem that my mother shared with me years ago, “Mother to Son.”
“Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it, And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”
Certainly, things have changed because of the coronavirus pandemic for all of us — young and not-so-young alike. But it’s been rough for youth who have been born into an age in which “instant gratification” can be easily accessed by simply clicking on an app or downloading photographs and videos onto their iPhones.
And while some school administrators, communities of faith, local non-profits and friends and families, through a myriad of creative means and ventures, have organized graduation “parades,” invited guests to virtual commencement ceremonies or sent their shout outs and salutations noting their success via Facebook Live and Zoom, these efforts, despite their earnestness, will never be enough. For the majority of today’s graduating seniors, these creative initiatives will fall far short of helping youth realize the formation of their own lifelong memories of community gatherings and celebrations acknowledging their graduations — glorious encounters punctuated by the human touch.
As the young Prince of Denmark faces thoughts of suicide, philosophical and emotional angst in William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy, “Hamlet,” the young heir to the throne considers revenge against his uncle, Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet’s father in order to seize his throne and marry Hamlet’s mother. Suddenly, life as he has known it throws him a hardball, leaving him all alone, floundering upon the ocean like a ship without a sail.
Hamlet, like thousands of graduating seniors today, in the play’s most enduring soliloquy, must come to terms with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” — that is, finding a way to address and hopefully, overcome, life when bad things happen to us through no fault of our own.
Is life, given such unfair circumstances, worth living?
“To be, or not to be — that is the question?” Hamlet ponders in Act 3, Scene 1.
Indeed, this new, foreign landscape has no precedence for today’s youth. And yet, the world’s inhabitants, people of color particularly, are no strangers to injustice, hard times or tomorrows replete with hurdles, obstacles, landmines and starting lines set miles behind those of other runners.
So, while “life ain’t been no crystal stair,” we, as Hughes reminds us, have continued to climb, to move on — tacks and splinters notwithstanding.
Thus, I am confident that like the ancestors before us who were able to “make a way out of no way,” today’s young graduates will survive and thrive, despite the slings and arrows of the present. If life is to continue, no other option remains.
And yes, life and our world, forever changed though they may be, will go on.