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Class of 2024: Never Give Up

Wed, 06/19/2024 - 12:14


The high school classes of 2024 walk across the stage in the June sunshine in the coming week, diplomas in hand and mortarboards hurled skyward and step across an invisible Rubicon into an adult future that, at this precise moment, feels uncertain at best and possibly perilous.

No, thank God, this class is not graduating into a world on the brink of war, as the high school graduates of 1914 or 1939 were. (At least as far as we know, with Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un signing ominous pacts in Pyongyang only yesterday.) No, America is not in the throes of mass cultural chaos, as in, say, 1968. (At least as far as we know, with our former president promising a bloodbath should voters decline once again to re-elect him in November.) But it has been left to this next generation, the class of 2024, to face a critical climate crisis that brings the world to another kind of brink. Also, they are called on to enter the next stage of their journeys — whether it’s onward to college, trade school, or to begin the working life — under a gathering cloud of political unrest that threatens our country, casting a shadow over us all in this election year; it will be the first election in which many of them, turning 18, will vote for a president. And then, too, there are the wars in Gaza and Ukraine that will end who knows how and when.

All these crises are being bequeathed to them by previous generations, we Boomers, we Gen Xers.

Speeches at graduation ceremonies tend to fall into categories: humorous (Will Ferrell cracking them up at the University of Southern California, 2017), wistful (David Foster Wallace with his famous “This Is Water” commencement address at Kenyon College, 2005), or rousing. Perhaps our favorite speech of all time to a class of students is the definitive rouser given by Winston Churchill, unfashionable as he may be these days, to the student body of his old school, Harrow, in 1941, as war raged in Europe and Great Britain, having stood alone to face down fascism, began to see a faint dawn breaking with the belated arrival of an ally, the United States. This was Churchill’s famous never give in speech: “Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense,” he told the boys, many of whom would soon have to fight.

Lesser known than the never give in bit in the Harrow address was what Churchill said next. He instructed the Harrow student body to change a verse that had been written in their school song in Churchill’s honor, so that instead of referring to darker days, it referred to sterner days. Instead of being dark, Churchill said, the boys should think of the struggle against fascism, Holocaust, and authoritarian dictatorship as a stern challenge that it was an honor to face head-on. “These are not dark days; these are great days,” the prime minister said, “the greatest days our country has ever lived; and we must all thank God that we have been allowed, each of us according to our stations, to play a part in making these days memorable. . . .”

Nothing as dire as D-Day — we hope and expect — awaits in the future, shrouded in mist and as yet purely hypothetical, of the class of 2024 at East Hampton High School, graduating Friday, June 28, Pierson High School in Sag Harbor (Saturday, June 29), and the Bridgehampton School (this Saturday). But the state of global and national affairs does call for them to rise and face more than one stern challenge.

One thing we can say with confidence: Surely they will do a better job of it than their elders did. Godspeed.



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