Opinion: The Class of 2020 could change the world for the better

Their story might start with what we can do as opposed to what we can’t do.

I am sorry the Class of 2020 missed the last part of its senior year. I am sorry they missed the chance to perform in the spring musical, vie for a state championship, attend the prom and everything else they were looking forward to. I am sorry they missed group tossing graduation caps in the air. And I am sorry they missed saying goodbyes to classmates of many years. Still, their teachers, coaches, mentors and elders celebrated them and their accomplishments at their very own graduation ceremonies and in the local media. We might call those gifts of the pandemic.

They are moving on to the rest of their lives at a pivotal time in history, when everything changed, for everyone. And those traditions this class missed? They have not changed since I was a senior in high school, in 1980 — nor have the pressing issues of the day. Forty years ago, “America was in decline, the world is going to hell, and our children’s lives will be worse than our own. The environment is imploding — with global warming and ozone depletion, we’ll all either die of cancer or live in Waterworld,” according to Wired Magazine. Sound familiar?

Today, Earth hangs on a cliff edge of climate change, and Alaska is ground zero, warming two to three times faster than the global average. In the 140 years since records started being kept, two-thirds of the warming occurred since I was a freshman in high school. Members of the Class of 2020 might rightly ask my generation why we didn’t do something to reverse this, and a many other issues front and center as humanity confronts COVID-19, like economic and cultural inequality.

The short answer is we were more concerned about ourselves than each other. Money became more important than the well-being and sustainability of plant, animal and human life. What our world needed was a reset. And for better or worse, we could be getting one. Yes, a milestone senior year was cut short, but these graduates may have gained much more.

This new virus is forcing humanity’s hand on nothing less than our environmental and fiscal survival. These graduates have a chance to be part of something much bigger — the transformation of the world. I know, they just graduated and are ready for a break. Stay with me here. It can start much smaller, with a new story.

Their story might start with what we can do as opposed to what we can’t do. We can: ride our bikes instead of drive, wear a face covering in the grocery store to protect each other from contracting the virus, grow a greens garden for the foodbank. These kinds of things — individual actions with a shared purpose — are how Americans have made it through times of challenge and conflict over the decades.

Many graduates are already telling a new story. Over the past four years, I have heard members of this class speak with passion and eloquence on the Capitol steps, rallying awareness and action on climate change, cultural and race inequality, gender-based violence, gun violence and more. As former President Barack Obama concluded in his online remarks to the Class of 2020 “I have seen you lead.”

The starting point for such leadership is not complicated. It is what we learn in kindergarten — basic respect, care and cooperation with your classmates. I work at the hospital, where over the past few months my co-workers have transformed the facility to make it safer for patients and visitors, with an expansion in case of a surge in COVID-19. This is but one example of helpers around the country stepping up for their community in time of crisis.

The year 1980 was the best year of my life up to that point, filled with gratitude for friends, family and the beautiful place wherein I was lucky and privileged to grow up. The Class of 2020 might have a similar outlook, graduating with people they’ve known for much of their lives, in a spectacular natural environment that people from all over the world want to see at least once in their lifetimes. They may also feel a responsibility to sustain this place for the next generations.

As I pulled up to our community garden recently, there was our 6-year-old neighbor bent over the middle of a garden plot, weeding away, laser focused on helping her mom prepare for planting. Ayla is where members of the Class of 2020 were a dozen years ago, her summer between kindergarten and first grade. I could not help but notice her Wonder Woman gardening gloves.

• Katie Bausler lives in Douglas. She is a member of the Terra Linda High School, California Class of 1980. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a My Turn or letter.

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