I imagine that, for some of you, being graduated by your elementary school doesn’t feel like much at all—just another day in your house, trying to stay out of your parents’ way while they dutifully work from their makeshift home offices.
But you’d be wrong to think that this isn’t much at all. This is a momentous occasion. You have done what no generation of elementary school students ever did (or had to do) before—you completed the final grade level at your school with an extraordinary level of self-discipline and an unanticipated amount of ingenuity and perseverance. For that, the students in your grade will be remembered as pioneers—but instead of covered wagons on the Santa Fe Trail, you explored new territory through Google Classroom on your Chromebooks, punctuated by a few breaks of Minecraft and TikTok. You will have to explain that last part to your children one day.
Speaking of which, one day a long, long time from now, perhaps one of your own kids will complain that they have too much homework to do. At that point, you will have every right to puff out your chest and strut around the kitchen, regaling them in a slightly-too-loud voice of the time you spent this entire last marking period going to school at home. You’ll employ sentences like “You think you have too much homework? My entire school day took place in my bedroom! I learned molecular biology between feeding the dog and helping my grumpy father (your grandfather!) find his glasses before his fourth Zoom meeting of the day!” You might even snicker as you recall how the glasses were on Dad’s head.
What I’m saying to you is that these last months were marked by sacrifice, which is related often to suffering. Not that staying at home is the grand kind of suffering that war heroes endure, but it is remarkable in that you are still children, yet you’ve been called to serve the country with a kind of sacrifice.
Every day, back when school was still in-person, you would begin by reciting “The Pledge of Allegiance.” It’s easy to say the words of the Pledge, but by sacrificing, by staying at home or wearing a mask when you were out in public, you walked the talk.
Day after day, you pledged your allegiance—your loyalty—to two things: the flag and the Republic for which the flag stands. In “Republic,” you’ll see the word “public,” which means “populace” or “the people.” A republic is a government for the people, by the people, and of the people. At your age, you are less likely to get terminally ill from COVID-19 than people who are much older than you, but you can still carry the disease without knowing it and spread it to others, who could then become gravely affected by it. When you stayed home, you were doing it for other people, exhibiting the loyalty you stated in the Pledge. Your sacrifice on a personal level is one that distinguishes a citizen. Some would even say it was patriotic. You were inconvenienced for the greater good of your community—or, as the final two words of the Pledge say, “for all.”
To ignore the frailty of others for your own comfort would have been selfish. You are not alone in your sacrifice, of course, as many adults can attest. Even some of your parents, who haven’t had to contemplate the multiplication of fractions since they bore mullets and acid-washed jeans or traded pogs and cosseted their Furbies, have tried to help you—in often imperfect ways, I know. Be kind to them. They did the best they could, I’m sure, between helping you, working from home, and trying to find the glasses that were on top of their heads. Most of them now appreciate teachers in a way they never had. Do not be surprised if, in four or five years, statues of your teachers start popping up in public squares and in front of libraries.
But know this, graduates of elementary school: One day, decades from now, your difficult and steady work during these extraordinary times will be burnished by the passage of time and memory’s editorial grace. Your efforts will shine and serve as an example for future generations. Your sacrifice will be a credential. I celebrate you and all you’ve accomplished. You not only explored new territory—you created a map as you did it.
About the Author:
BJ Ward is the author of Jackleg Opera, which received the Paterson Award for Literary Excellence. He has received the Governor’s Award in Arts Education from the State of New Jersey. He earned an M.A. at Syracuse University and is on faculty at Warren County Community College. His website is bj-ward.com.