I was speaking with a student on Tuesday and he reminded me of our last in-person All-School Meeting in early March, the day we headed off to spring break. Remember? The one when I said, “We fully expect to be back in two weeks but in the highly unlikely scenario that our return to school is delayed, please make a point of taking home whatever academic materials you might need to continue with your studies. Again nothing to really worry about- but let’s be prepared just in case.” I distinctly recall some low-level chatter, even a few snickers, basically the distinct impression that some of you thought I was being overly cautious, while others were thinking, “Cool, maybe we will miss a few days of school.”
Winter turned to spring, however, and the prospect of returning to school became increasingly... remote (pun intended.) And before long, I found myself killing a lot of time making tik tok videos, binge-watching seven seasons of Alone, and looking ahead to that distant future known as the first week of September, thinking, “Well, things will have to have gotten back to some semblance of normal by then, won’t they?” I shared this sentiment with the Class of 2020, whom we finally graduated back in late July. I said to them and I say to you now that there are any number of three-word phrases one could use to describe the current state of things but I think I can safely say that “back to normal” is not one of them.
Even if I could snap my finger and make that happen, I’m not sure, however, we should be satisfied with “back-to-normal” as the ultimate destination of this particular and certainly peculiar journey. If by back to normal, we mean back to ever-widening gaps between haves and have-nots, systemic injustices rooted in centuries of racial oppression and inequality, environmental practices that, within the last 15 years, have yielded nine of the ten warmest years on record, or to political landscapes where personal and tribal self-interest crowd out civil discourse and concern for the well-being of neighbors near and far... if, like me, you have found yourself longing for a post-pandemic existence that’s exactly the same as your pre-pandemic existence, perhaps we should ask ourselves, “Is that the best we can do? Are we settling? Setting the bar too low?” These days, I know that it’s tempting to just put life on hold, hunker down and wait out the storm with the not unreasonable expectation that, once science has worked its magic, things will go back to normal. The students of this institution need to know that they are the latest 225 of 1,927 students who have passed through these halls and by virtue of doing so, they’re probably going to come out a little different; they are likely to become tinkerers, problem -solvers, change-agents, dreamers, maybe even rabble-rousers, someone who spends their life making what the late John Lewis refers to as “good trouble.”
No, now is not the time to merely endure, to hunker down and wait for a time when things will finally be back to normal because we could be waiting a long time, and meanwhile, the world will keep on happening and we will have lost precious time. No, in considering the year we will be spending together, my challenge is this: let’s do what needs to be done today so that when that post-pandemic tomorrow comes, and it will, we don’t just go back to normal; we go back to better.