FRANKLIN, Indiana — It feels odd, slipping into the academic robes on an autumn day.
But, then, many things are different for this graduation.
Normally, we’d be celebrating the graduating class in the gym. The stands would be packed with parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins of the graduates sitting shoulder to shoulder to mark the happy occasion.
Afterward, everyone — graduates, family, friends, faculty and staff — would exchange handshakes, hugs and high fives, reveling in the moment.
But this isn’t any other time.
This is life in the age of the coronavirus pandemic.
Instead of sardining ourselves into the college gym, we sit, socially distanced, on the football field, masks in place. Each graduate is limited to having four guests attend in person. Everyone else must watch the proceedings online.
Even so, nearly half the class of 2020 has opted not to attend in person.
Some of that may be attributed to jobs and relocation. It’s hard to put one’s life on hold and find time to return for a ceremony originally scheduled for May.
Life moves on, even in a pandemic.
But what sort of life?
As the commencement exercises move at their typical stately pace, I find myself pondering what sort of world these graduates will enter.
Disease has ravaged the globe — and hit our homeland particularly hard. It’s forced us to live in new and strange ways, prodded us to give up handshakes and hugs in even happy times. We face each other behind masks, aware that the very air we breathe can wound or kill us.
The economy teeters on a cliff’s edge. One out of every five small businesses has gone under. Millions of Americans are out of work.
Our streets now are places of confrontation and conflict. The deaths of unarmed Black people have prompted citizens not just to protest obvious injustice, but to snarl at each other.
It seems to be such a hard time to launch a career — to build a life.
And yet …
I recall my own college graduation, which also took place outdoors, on a spot almost across the street from where this commencement takes place.
That was nearly 40 years ago.
The country just had emerged from a hostage crisis in Iran that paralyzed the nation for more than a year. In my senior year, my college walking buddies spent a lot of time talking about whether we would be sent to fight a desert war.
Not long before then, rising gas prices, among other things, had led to a truckers’ strike, which in turn led to shootings on our highways. Joblessness was accompanied with inflation, which wasn’t supposed to happen.
Then, just a few weeks before we walked across the stage to collect our diplomas, a madman tried to kill the newly elected president of the United States to impress a teenage movie star. The would-be assassin didn’t succeed, but he wounded the commander-in-chief, Secret Service agents and presidential staffers, some of them critically.
The world seemed to be coming unhinged.
Perhaps that’s the way it always is.
We Americans like to think of our history as an unimpeded march forward.
In truth, though, it’s more like a series of lurches, a story of stumbling, even falling down, before finding one’s feet again and taking one step ahead, then another, in the hopes that each stride will take us to some place better.
The graduates walk across the stage to collect the document that symbolizes the years they’ve spent studying, thinking, preparing themselves for what lies ahead.
Uncertainty awaits them.
But that’s both the beauty and terror of life. We never know what the days and years ahead have in store for us.
As I watch these graduates move toward their futures, I recall how eager I was at their age to test myself in the world, to find out what possibilities and challenges life held for me.
They will have hard days ahead of them.
But they will have good days, too — many, many of them, I hope.
Thus, it always has been.
Thus, it always will be.
My wish for these young people, on this odd autumn commencement day, is that they will learn from every stumble, find their feet when they fall and continue lurching forward.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.