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Young people are leading protests. So what’s the point of starry virtual graduations?

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Dear Class of 2020,

As I write these words, on a Sunday afternoon in June, YouTube, on which you have grown up, is throwing “a virtual commencement celebration” (also called “Dear Class of 2020"). Produced in partnership with Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Initiative, it was largely assembled before this last week of protests, growing out of the killing of George Floyd — though some newer segments, notably Michelle Obama’s and Barack Obama’s individual addresses, have been updated to keep this four-plus-hour grad-stravaganza from seeming so, you know, last month. It is “live streaming,” but it is not streaming live.

This is the insanely star-studded cap to a couple of weeks of virtual graduations and commencement events, created under COVID-19 lockdown, hosted by schools, communities or giant corporations. (If you would like to see how the local news would produce one, I recommend Portland, Ore.'s KATU event; and for a look at how a single school manages it, Papillion La-Vista Senior High in Papillion, Neb.; the strength of each is in its student contributions.)

Last week Facebook Watch held one, also full of famous faces, offering congratulations and advice via picture phone and hosted by “The Office” mates and sometime writing partners Mindy Kaling and B.J. Novak: “This is finally time for you to get out in the real world, but not today. Today you have to kind of stay in your house.” Clocking in at an efficient two hours, and including a credit roll of every high school and college in the country, it included a performance by Miley Cyrus and a commencement address by Oprah Winfrey, in a dress the color of the graduation robes we wore when I got out of high school. (They didn’t do caps and gowns at my college — and also, I didn’t graduate.)

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Compared to the awful power of the video of George Floyd’s death, or even the intimate address of Trevor Noah, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News are utterly ineffectual.

“Even though there may not be pomp because of our circumstances, never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion and energy and hope,” Winfrey said.

The YouTube bash did begin with “Pomp and Circumstance,” and it was Lizzo playing it on the flute, backed by the New York Philharmonic, in knit-together isolation. (Nothing says “secondary education” like knowing how to play the flute.) This Oscars-long event (with no commercial breaks) includes an epochal, musical “Schitt’s Creek” cast reunion — in character — saluting teachers; a lockdown-themed “Simpsons” segment (“Not having friends over is seen as a healthy choice rather than basic unpopularity,” says Lisa, considering the advantages), a group performance of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” featuring Janelle Monáe, Shonda Rhimes, Tracee Ellis Ross and Kelly Rowland, with Misty Copeland dancing. Plus BTS. Plus Katy Perry directing the tassel switch. Plus YouTubers for the kids because, after all, this is YouTube.

It is sad, I suppose, that instead of occupying some shared physical space with Greta Thunberg or Pete Davidson delivering a speech you’ll remember all your life, you are watching yet another one of these television specials, which are usually only moderately special and sometimes not so special at all. (Though, as television specials go, “Dear Class of 2020" is genuinely special — funny when it’s supposed to be funny, inspiring when inspiration is the point; there is just so much specialness to get through.) You are not laughing — or crying — in a crowd.

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These people may be addressing “you,” as part of some million-headed body, but what does that have to do with you? “I see you,” many say, but what do they see? “I have a really good feeling about you guys,” says Colin Jost, “and I rarely say that to a class of three million high school seniors.” At least on “Romper Room,” when the teacher looked through her magic mirror, she might have said your name.

Still, this is where we are now. You are the first class in a century to graduate in the midst of a deadly pandemic. (It’s not entirely certain that we’ll have seen the end of it by the time the class of 2021 gets its diplomas, so feel special while you can.) And after all, there is something about this arms-length event that speaks to the toxicity of the time, not so much a zombie apocalypse as an apocalypse brought on by the human capacity for not using its collective head — so a zombie apocalypse, I guess.

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Each one of you will take from these presentations, as from your actual improvised, non-streamed graduation events, whatever meaning you need. Some will go all in (it is clear that the presenters imagine you watching with your family and perhaps you are). For others, this will not feel pivotal, and four hours of full-blown commencement speeches, even interspersed with comedy and music, will still feel like a long day; even when sentiments come from the Obamas, Beyoncé and Condoleezza Rice, this may just seem like a long parade of adults telling you how to feel about things. (“You can’t really understand advice,” said Jost, “until you’ve already gone through the thing that someone is giving you advice about.”)

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Much of this advice is similar: Be kind, be open, be responsible, be authentic, be engaged, be committed, be flexible, ask yourself not what you want but who you want to be, stay safe, strong — and please, please, please make sure to vote. Not a little of it, including Jenna Bush’s list of things she learned from her grandfather, George H.W. Bush — “Don’t blame others for your setbacks,” “When things go well always give credit to others,” “Don’t talk all the time; listen to your friends and mentors” — has felt like subtweeting the current president. (If you’re of the mind that there is too much diversity, young person, this is not the commencement celebration for you.)

More than one speaker — usually one of the comics — has suggested that you weren’t necessarily missing much. “As someone who went through a graduation ceremony in the year of 2004,” said John Mulaney on “Dear Class of 2020,” “I have to tell you that sitting there in a shower curtain sweating out booze while someone your dean thought was interesting speaks is not that good; I bet this video is way better.”

In any case, new graduate, you may have spent too much time out in the streets these past days, already launched into life, to worry much about what you’re missing in the quad. Indeed, you may be out there now, full of feelings of your own, missing “Dear Class of 2020.” But I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to watch it later if you want. I will say that, superstar brilliance aside, it is you — the representative glimpse of you we get — that make these things worth watching.

And far be it from me to tell you how to approach this day. The only thing I really recall about my graduation is that when it came time to sing the alma mater, most of the class had no idea we had one. My grad night included wandering through a couple of parties where my friends didn’t quite fit in and sitting in a coffee shop until dawn, which is to say it was like pretty much any other weekend. What I can tell you is that on the first day of the rest of my life contemplating … the rest of my life, I could not have imagined that I would ever be writing these words.

Stay safe, stay strong and, yes, vote.

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Your friend, Robert, another adult.


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