by Dash Barnett, Class of 2021
Student speaker Dash Barnett, selected by peers, delivered the following remarks at Commencement 2021 alongside Denisse Aguilar Sarmiento.
I’m gonna start this speech with a quote from Nietzche, who famously lost his mind in public after seeing a really sad-looking horse, so I want you all to take it with a grain of salt. I’ll tell you, too, that it’s not a happy quote, and I want to acknowledge right now that it hasn’t been a happy year either. I believe in finding joy and laughter in the saddest quotes or the darkest days, but to those of you who have lost someone, or something this year: I see you.
“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.”
Keep that grain of salt in your head, but think about those words with me for a second. I know everyone sitting in this crowd wishes for something. Maybe it’s a win for your favorite sports team. Maybe it’s your crush texting you back, your spouse remembering an anniversary, a quick commute to work, an easy day at school. We wish things for the people we love, too, without really thinking about it. We say have a good day, or a good night, good luck on that test or promotion or interview, enjoy that movie, drive home safe. If you’re a really good person like me you might wish for peace in the Middle East, or Tik Tok getting shut down, I don’t know. But not pain, suffering, desolation. That would be crazy, wouldn’t it?
Well think, if you can remember that far, what you wished for in February or March 2020. This is basically pre-history to our pandemic-addled minds, so I’ll give you some refreshers. Buzzfeed was offering a quiz to find out if you were more like a dog or a hot dog, whatever that means. Trump (remember him?) had just gotten impeached for the first time, and acquitted. Kids were doing the renegade dance. Corona was just a beer. It was a simpler time. Imagine if someone showed up at your door in one of these midwinter weeks and said, “hey, it’s been a hard week at work, hasn’t it.” Or, “hey it’s been a hard week at school.” “Hey, I know you’re tired, and stressed, and worn out. So what if you could have a week off?” I don’t know about you, but at this point I’d be offering my kidney, or my dog, or my little brother for that kind of prize (sorry, Silas). Two weeks off, this genie says next. You’d be pinching yourself to make sure you weren’t dreaming. At least I did when I got the email from Lakeside that there would be no school for two weeks. It was like winning the lottery. It was like the end of Shawshank Redemption when he’s spinning around in the rain (You kids won’t get that one). And I bet I said, wow, this is amazing. This is really great. I wish this could just last forever. And here I am, standing in front of all of you COVID-veterans, realizing that it kinda did, and actually it wasn’t such a great thing after all.
So be careful what you wish for, right? It’s a cliché, but I think if something gets said enough times it must have some truth to it. What I’ve realized, even in my very few years on this earth, is that sometimes bad things, things we’d never wish for, need to happen. Maybe not a massive world-stopping pandemic. Maybe you just need to bomb that math test to snap you out of that slacking you’ve been doing. Maybe you need to get dumped to realize that there was actually someone much better waiting for you. Maybe you need to get your dinosaur cupcake stolen from the science building so you can learn to hide your food better. Maybe you need to drop your phone in the toilet so you can spend a couple days really being around your family instead of just existing in the same house as them. The point is that pain teaches lessons, like Nietzche said. And this crazy year we’ve all been through taught lessons too. I learned that if I don’t know an answer in virtual class, I can just stand real still and pretend my wifi stopped working. I learned never to overestimate the intelligence of the American public. But really I learned how to be alone and not be lonely. I learned that instead of waking up every morning wanting to take the school day off, I should have been treasuring them, because now I’m standing up here wondering how I could have possibly taken any of my time with this community for granted. I bet that for all your suffering, and I truly know there was suffering in it for us all, you learned something from this year. Please, please, please don’t wish for another one like it. I am superstitious. But maybe Nietzche had some truth to what he said. Maybe we should tell our loved ones to have a bad day at school, a commute jam-packed with traffic, a night’s sleep interrupted constantly by the neighbor’s loud music. Try wishing the bad side of life on yourself, too, or at least expecting it, because it’ll be there no matter what. Mourn what it takes from you, but try and let it teach you something, too.