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Finish well, Class of 2021

Courtesy of Jamie Mewes closeup behind a female college graduate wearing cap and gown
FRIENDS: Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future, they say — and these girls from the Class of ’94 were good ones. Nurture your friendships back home, and choose well when you leave home.
Graduation, college, COVID-19 — what a weird time to be heading out into the world. But all’s not lost, especially in a small town.

Eighteen years ago, I held my firstborn baby in my arms and did some math: She would graduate from high school in 2021.

The Class of 2021.

I couldn’t imagine how that would feel, come 2021. For my little Jenna Louise, I hoped for a pack of good friends with inside jokes to spare. For a “good” class — the kind teachers remember for all the right reasons. For nice boys who were good friends to the girls, with enough boy-girl drama to keep it interesting — but not enough to make everybody crazy. And for the kind of kids who push each other to do better, run faster, jump higher, and give each other a run for a better FFA office.

Those boxes were all ticked for the Bushnell-Prairie City Class of 2021. With 40 in the class, they know each other well enough to have a good time together. They aren’t afraid to call each other out. Like the early elementary years, when young Jenna had them convinced that Spangler Candy Canes were made in our basement. The jig was up around fourth grade, when one boy announced, “My mom said that’s not true.”

Small towns, man. It was a good run.

Nobody expected the Class of 2021 to get the sort of raw deal they’ve gotten. Despite relentlessly looking for the good, the truth is that it’s been rough for high school seniors. I could make a list of all they’ve missed out on, but you already know.

I listened to Jenna and a friend talk the other night about powder puff football. They’re getting a three-day homecoming the week of Easter, but no powder puff. Does that matter in the grand scheme of things? Probably not. Does it matter to those girls today? Sure. A lot. It’s OK to acknowledge that.

And so here we are, with two short months to graduation, then a big transition to college. What can you do?

1. Celebrate all the moments. The little stuff is bigger because the big stuff might not happen. Celebrate lunches together and make-do dances. Celebrate FFA wins and senior nights. Celebrate making it to school another day, because we couldn’t do that not that long ago.

2. Feel the feels. Young friends, it’s OK to feel all the things you’re feeling. This whole thing stinks for you, and we can’t fix it. Be sad for a while. Cry the tears. Then pick yourself up and dust yourself off and set about making your own memories.

3. Relish in your plans. Take the placement tests and sign the apartment leases and choose the dorm and forge ahead. Meet all the new people. Try all the new (legal) things.

4. Remember, everyone struggles. And no one really knows what they’re doing. Especially the people on social media who look like they have it together. You can bet even they struggle with something. You’re not alone, and you can do it.

5. Always finish what you start. High school. College. Summer jobs. Start well. Show up. Finish strong. Be known for it.

6. Do good work. Work hard. Learn what you’re good at and get better at it. Don’t worry about awards or accolades or fame. It may take years, but good work always gets recognized, and you’ll be known for it. 

7. Don’t stress out about big life plans. Please don’t think you have to pick a job for the rest of your life today. That’ll only make you worry about your major and your college and following this crazy plan. Figure out what you like, what you’re interested in, where you have skills. Choose a major in that area. Follow your skills, and they’ll eventually lead to a career you love.

8. Don’t let the crazies get you down. There are more good people than not. Remember that.

9. Don’t be afraid to say you’re wrong. I went to college to be a doctor. I’d declared it since junior high. I got to college and it lasted six weeks. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re wrong and adjust your plan. It’ll be OK.

10. There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t really matter. I can get sucked into a useless debate as quick as the next guy, but you’ll be a lot happier if you can step back and think. If it won’t matter in five years, don’t spend more than five minutes worrying about it.

11. Hang onto hope. A good work friend said the other day, “Hope isn’t a strategy — until now.” He’s right. I know the world won’t be like this forever. I know it’ll get better. I know you’ll get more opportunities. And I know this generation of young people will come out of the global pandemic with world-changing ideas. Because they had to.

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