Shit is rough, but you are wonderful. And the wonderfulness of you will endure, in the exact way that the rain pouring in my backyard right now will not. Uncertainty defines everything these days, yes, but I believe in your enduring wonder because I’ve seen who you are and what you can do.
I remember I had a conversation with some of you in March 2020 about how you come to trust people and the expectations you have for the relationships you’ve got and the ones you’ll build, and the courage that taught you how to understand and embrace criticism, and to speak truth to power. Since then, I’ve heard many of you express your concerns about holding onto the selves you’ve built here after you leave this place. Though it may not happen immediately, you will one day find places – jobs, community groups, bands, theater troupes, whatever – that do not see your brave curiosity as a liability, but rather as a beautiful, beneficial thing. Whether your work fulfills you or you yearn for something more, you can become – perhaps you already are – an activist. You can engage with your future communities in so many ways that are sorely needed. You can volunteer, teach, discuss, mentor, build. The skills you have brought with you to your learning and then honed throughout your education will keep you going in this work.
If you struggle to find your feet beneath you as you move on to this next stage, fear not; this is the natural course of things. Maybe the most important things geriatric millennials like me can bestow upon Gen Z are these four points: 1) the “insert college degree, expect economic prosperity” model has proven to be a myth for some time now, 2) your life is going to feel like a series of fits and starts, forever delayed, 3) it’s really alright if you don’t go straight from point A to points B and C, etc., and 4) all of this, friends, is not a personal indictment of you.
Let me tell you a story. I finished my undergraduate program in 2009. Shit was rough then, too, but there at least was no global pandemic to contend with. I moved just outside Boston a few weeks after I received my degree on a frigid day in upstate New York. I tagged along to Massachusetts with a group of people I hardly knew because I had no other plans lined up. That was a cruel summer; it rained a record-setting 27 of 30 days in June. I had nothing much to do, though, no job and no prospects, so I walked the flat streets of Waltham until I knew them like the hilly, curving roads of my hometown.
Eventually my money ran out and I took a job at a CVS in Wellesley, the small one on 135. I was the photo lab manager, but because I wasn’t working in a “professional” job utilizing my degree, I felt a shame that I carried around like an unshakeable aura. I felt like I’d failed so many people: myself, my parents, my brother who was currently working on a PhD in computer science, my partner at the time, a chemistry major who had snagged a job downtown. At CVS, we didn’t have a proper darkroom at the store so I used to have to go down to the basement with the lights all turned off, stumbling over the off-season merchandise, to change the photo printer paper cartridges. The baffling precariousness of that situation is a fitting metaphor for this whole period of my life.
I quit a couple weeks into the new year, 2010. At this point, I had decided to go back to school to get my Masters in Library and Information Science, in part because I grew tired of men throwing newspapers at me when I asked them to walk five feet over to an open checkout station (silly me, I should have anticipated grumpy dudes throwing stuff at people would also be a problem in public libraries). I obviously still needed money, so I took a job north of Boston at a hair salon software company and built websites for stylists and spas in New England for a few months, and yes, it was exactly as ridiculous as it sounds, and then I started my MLIS almost exactly a year to the day after I arrived in Massachusetts. I lived in a different apartment with different people by then. I’d lost some old friends and made some new ones. I got my cats, who you’ve probably seen on Discord or Instagram.
So, happily ever after, right? Lol, no. It took me years – ones that contained a cross-country move, a stint in a very modestly successful electronic rock band, a failed marriage, and several family tragedies – before I felt “on track.” I went from point A to point Q to some point not even identifiable in this alphabetic system before I got to point B. These are the fits and starts I mentioned. Things got especially confusing from 2016-2018, when I took on a very stressful job and had a big falling out with my main friend group. I spent much of that time being a jerk, taking unnecessary risks, and making mistakes that I thought I had learned from – and mind you, this was the very end of my 20s, over seven years after I’d entered “the real world.” The day some sense got knocked into me wasn’t even when I woke up in the hospital after a driver hit and left me while I was biking in Brighton, but probably the night three months after that when a set of stairs collapsed under me in Allston as I was carrying my bike out of the house of a person who didn’t deserve one more second of my time. (Yes, this must be a scene in one or more redemptive indie romcoms with a strong female lead and a lot of ukulele strumming.) And even after that, I have continued to mess up. I have messed up prodigiously in these 13 years since I got my bachelor’s degree, and I know I’ll mess up routinely forever, but you know what? That’s the deal. We’re all on board for this. There’s nothing you can do to stop many of your own screwups until you’ve been on earth long enough to practice avoiding them, but you can do one thing to help you through it. You can remember point 4 from the above. Point 4: “All of this, friends, is not a personal indictment of you.”
I have gotten to know some of you better than others, but you are all impressive to me. The things I’ve seen you build, the teams I’ve seen you working with, the art I’ve seen you make – it’s been a joy. I’m a little weepy as I sit here and imagine not seeing you on campus anymore; your shoes are unfillable by anyone but you. But that’s part of the deal, too – you must go on, and you must mess up outside the bounds of our campus, and you must be the change you want to see in the world, the big one out there beyond our wee bubble.
I’ve been sitting here staring out at the rainy dark for a while without many ideas for a good closing paragraph, so I’ll leave you with someone else’s words. They are a more eloquent way of stating the first sentence of this letter: “Shit is rough, but you are wonderful.” You were, after all, challenged to “do something” when you came to us, and I share this in the spirit of challenging you to keep at it after you go, even if you’re feeling like a mess because you’re stuck in the dark at the CVS stockroom of life, trying not to trip over last year’s Halloween decorations.
“Nature teaches persistence and perseverance, because in the end nothing stops nature. If a rose can grow out of the concrete, so can we.”
– Micah Hobbes Frazier, racial justice activist, kind of quoting rapper Tupac Shakur, quoted in adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy
So go forth and grow, you wonderful little roses, you.