The Observer-Reporter building in Washington

If anyone middle-aged or beyond wants to feel even a tiny bit more elderly, the realization that high school seniors receiving diplomas this spring were not yet born when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred is certainly enough to do the trick.

They came into the world in a period of exceptional tumult, when the sight of collapsing towers in Manhattan, a gash in the side of the Pentagon, a crater in a field a little more than 80 miles east of Washington and 3,000 people dead left Americans questioning the invulnerability they had long taken for granted.

Now, graduating seniors are embarking on adulthood at a moment of even greater crisis for the United States. We are still in the midst of a pandemic that has killed about 35 times more Americans than died on 9/11, more working-age adults are unemployed than at any time since the Great Depression, and there have been large-scale protests and, in some instances, civil unrest following the death of an African American man in police custody in Minneapolis.

And all this has unfolded in the midst of a contentious election year, when voters are chewing over fundamental questions over what kind of country we are and what kind of country we could become.

Anyone leaving the safety of high school at this juncture would have ample reason to feel squeamish. And plenty of reason to question their luck. Not only have many of the rituals that mark the end of high school, like proms or commencement ceremonies, been canceled or modified, there’s abundant uncertainty about what the months ahead will hold. Will they be able to attend the campus of the college or university they have chosen, or will they have to learn online? Or take a year off? Will students who are opting to enter the job market find any opportunities?

It’s a pretty dismal picture.

But seniors also have plenty of reason to be optimistic.

Sure, it’s easy to tell people who are in their late teens that their whole lives lay ahead of them, that they have more tomorrows than yesterdays, and those sentiments have become commencement address boilerplate. That doesn’t make them any less true. We can only hope that lessons will be learned from today’s tribulations and we’ll become a more racially just, fair and caring society. On a more concrete level, we can also hope that we will examine the way this pandemic has been handled, and be much more prepared when the next one inevitably arrives.

One hopes that today’s seniors will survey the world around them, rectify the mistakes of their parents and grandparents and make it a better place.

We also have to think about this: Given advances in medicine and the law of averages, some of the students graduating this spring will be centenarians and live to see the 22nd century.

They’ll have one heck of a story to tell about 2020.

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