For two straight years, graduating high school seniors have faced an uncertain world, tremored by a pandemic that has left no segment of the planet untouched. Millions of people globally have become ill and nearly 3.4 million have died, more than 580,000 in the U.S. alone.
It seems every generation pays some toll in this world that has lifelong effects. How that ends up defining the individual depends largely on whether such events are viewed as insurmountable or obstacles to be dismantled.
In April 1917, just weeks before high school graduates were set to walk across a stage to receive their diplomas, the U.S. officially declared war on Germany, opening our entry to World War I. The war would claim 116,516 U.S. soldiers, but 63,114 died because of the Spanish flu. Another 53,402 died in combat. By August of the next summer, Congress had expanded the age of those who could be drafted into service to all men between the ages of 18 and 45. Many of those carefree seniors from the spring before would be drafted into service to fight in a war overseas.
The Great Depression of 1929-39 was a decade of despair and hopelessness for many Americans. By 1932 more than 20% of the population was unemployed. By 1933 nearly half of all U.S. banks had failed. The prospects of the “good life” seemed farfetched at best for any graduating senior.
Rebuilding after the Great Depression took years, but by 1938 there were signs that the U.S. economy was once again growing. Then on Dec. 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, a naval base on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The U.S. quickly declared war on Japan. Three days later Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. By the time the war ended in 1945, more than 400,000 American lives were lost. Many of them had been high school seniors just a few years earlier.
In March 1965 President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to send combat troops into battle in Vietnam. Those troops would not return home from this long war until 1973. By then nearly 58,000 U.S. soldiers had been declared dead or missing.
In 1982 U.S. unemployment peaked at 11%. Residential construction and auto manufacturers finished the year with 22% and 24% unemployment. Home mortgage interest rates reached a high of 18.5% just a few months earlier. College students faced federal student loan interest rates of anywhere from 9% for undergraduates to 12% for graduate students. It was an incredibly challenging time to find a job, but also to be saddled with college student loan debt that would shadow hundreds of thousands of college students for years to come.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked four U.S. commercial airliners. Two of those planes were flown into the World Trade Center Towers in New York City. A third plane targeted the Pentagon just outside of Washington, D.C., while the fourth plane crashed into a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 were killed during the attacks. The war on terror would begin shortly thereafter. The mastermind behind the terrorist attacks, Osama bin Laden would remain elusive to the U.S. until May of 2011 when he was finally tracked down by U.S. forces in Pakistan and killed. But a new world filled with terrorism had been ushered in for every student on that fateful date of 9/11.
There is no certainty in this world, other than the guarantee that every generation will face their great calamity. But for every generation that faced a horrific event in history, each managed to overcome and create a better world for the rest of us.
For the classes of 2020 and 2021, it has been the pandemic. These two years will leave an indelible mark on every graduate. It has been marked with tremendous loss of life and massive changes in the way we interact with each other.
There was a loss of jobs, loss of freedoms that perhaps we’d taken for granted and the loss of human touch. At the most personal level, it meant you were deprived of treasured experiences during your high school years. Some of you lost loved ones to the virus.
But you have also gained. You have learned, at a young age, that life makes no guarantees. It can be fleeting. It can be unfair. It can smack us in the face and steal moments we believed we deserved.
For all the struggles you encountered, you are also stronger and wiser. And as graduates, you are soon to be leaders who will shape this world in ways that those who came before you did not think possible.
Every graduating class faces some obstacle. How your respond – that is up to you. — Keith Anderson is director of news for APG of East Central Minnesota.