June 26 2020
Graduation speech 2020
Dear students, dear lovely, talented and fun young people who mean so much to me.
The sun has risen again, the birds are singing as they always do, and the day will be fantastic. Everything seems to be as it always was – and should be on such a wonderful Friday where we send you lovingly out into the future and lives of grown-ups with the feeling of both happiness and melancholy. However, nothing is as it should be. A few months ago, we would never have expected to be here together with your wonderful caps in all the colours of the rainbow.
It is so fantastic that we are here today despite everything. I am so happy to look out over the toughest, most persistent, talented and wonderful year group ever on a summer’s day in June, where the world is not the same as it was over three months ago. The world we knew will never be the same and we are probably not the same people we were before. I am certainly not the same and I have gone through all the psychological panic phases being both scared and unsure about it all. We grown-ups can also be scared. But you have managed the situation so bravely and fought so greatly together.
I am so proud of you and I know your parents and teachers have a lump in their throat when they see you here at graduation against all odds. It is a day of deliverance and liberation, after three months, where you and we all have worked hard to see clearly through the darkness during the greatest crisis since the second world war.
”It is springtime outside. It is light and strange and melancholy. They are grown up and free now and can do whatever they want. But they never really got to know the spring. They neglected it.”
This is how the student’s springtime is described in Scherfig’s legendary The Stolen Spring, and this description gives even more meaning for you than it has for any other graduation year in Denmark’s history.
You have in fact had a neglected and stolen spring. You have been sitting isolated at home, you have suffered deprivation, had your Gala party, exams and student parties cancelled and you have experienced many disappointments along the way. You have been nervous for your grandparents, family and maybe yourself. However, you have lived in accordance with the mantra you manage what you must and then some. On short notice, you have taken part in Danish and World history, in an exemplary and dignified way, as none of us have ever done or experienced in our youth.
The Norwegian Minister of Health expressed it so beautifully in a fantastic speech to young people this spring when he said ”Next summer is only for middle aged men who buy minced meat and toilet paper on special offer. Next summer does not exist when you are young. It is the youth that have had to live differently. You have had to put your lives on pause so others can keep theirs.”
During the 1, 2 and 3 years at school, you have shown that you can work hard, acquire knowledge and skills, take action and get things done. You have been fantastic, delightful and fun classmates at this wonderful school. However, the last three months have shown that when the shit hits the fan, and society and the world shut down during a historical crisis, we can count on you! You are built of something special and you are a very special graduating year that I will never forget. I think you will also never forget this time. I also think that, contrary to other years, you have gained perspective in your lives. You have learned what really matters in life and have proved all the grumpy old men wrong when they say young people only think about themselves. You have in fact shown the opposite, you have shown public spirit, solidarity and fought for what you believe in – also before COVID-19.
I am so proud of you, and I want to send you off with some words that will both take you up in the helicopter but also focus on how important you are for us all. That you are something very special.
I want to talk to you about the solidarity and community spirit that I think the crisis has created in our society. I also want to talk to you about how the crisis has maybe changed us all a bit and how it hopefully has helped us see the important things in life. I will also, of course, talk to you about how this has affected you and shown how educated, fun, wonderful and tough you are. And maybe – hopefully – that you will take all the experiences with you further in life.
The crisis and solidarity before and now.
What has the crisis meant for our solidarity and community spirit? Not even your parents or grandparents have ever experienced anything like this. When the Prime Minister held her press conference on 11 March and locked down the country, she appealed to us to stick together but keep distance, that was Danish history and World history. I do not think I was the only one that had a shiver down my spine and a nervous knot in my stomach with the realisation that this was very serious. The Queen was on nationwide tv during prime time just six days later and appealed clearly to our solidarity and common sense. That has not happened since King Christian’s speech to the nation on 5 May 1945 when Denmark was liberated after five years of German occupation.
The Queen spoke directly to us about our behaviour and death in a way we are not used to: ”Corona-virus is a dangerous guest. It spreads like rings in the water and it is fast. One person can infect many – even without feeling ill themself and the infection spreads further to even more, a long and frightening chain. People will die in that chain. A child can lose their grandmother, a daughter can lose her father, a wife her husband. Friends will suddenly be no more. It is a chain we must break, and we can break it.”
The Queen also reminded us that in dangerous times we must stick together and that it lies deep in us, it is natural for us in this country. The Queen had a good point that was not just produced by a spin doctor if we look at it historically. We are a small country which has, through time, been through existential crisis and threats and since the loss of Southern Jutland in 1864 the mantra has been: ”What is lost on the outside shall be won on the inside”. This gives good meaning then and now.
On 9 April 1940 we were attacked by a foreign enemy and dangerous guest when German troops crossed the Danish boarder and occupied the country for five bedamned years. There has been a lot written and said this spring about the spring of 80 years ago. The physical occupation of a military superior force quickly resulted in a greater national union of solidarity, singalongs and focus on community spirit and the strong democratic and cultural values we build our society on. It happened in a time when everyday life changed radically with blackouts, curfews, rationing, internment, death sentencing – and then resistance fighting for life and death. Strong chains were put on our freedom of action and thoughts.
However, the occupation strengthened solidarity within, we received a coalition government across parties and the population pulled together and helped each other while they sang with Poul Henningsen and his timeless song of freedom and the lack thereof They tie us down mouth and hand. That was the occupations most important non-illegal freedom song and its message gives meaning also today in light of the Corona crisis.
They tie us down mouth and hand,
but they cannot tie the spirit,
and no one is imprisoned,
when thoughts are free.
We have an inner fortress here
strengthened by our own worth,
when we fight for what is important.
Those who keep the sole clean will not be destroyed.
No one can decide over what we decide ourselves.
We promise this with hand and mouth
in the dark before morning,
that the dream of freedom
will never be over.
When the Prime Minister sensibly locked society down in self-defence in March 2020, the enemy was not a foreign enemy, and we were not physically tied down mouth and hand – not completely anyway. We did not lose our self-determination or large land areas to an aggressive and totalitarian occupying power. It was an invisible, inner enemy that robbed us of our lives. We lost our everyday lives at school and work, our social contact with each other and our families and all that which makes us happy. Sadly, we lost many to the life-threatening disease. Far too many – and it is not over yet even though everything looks bright at the moment.
Just as in 1940, this situation has strengthened our community spirit and our inner fortress. It has caused a renaissance of public spirit, which has been lying in hibernation in a very individualised age, where the focus has been on the individual’s right to self-realisation. Suddenly, the focus was on community spirit again, Faber’s sing-alongs have helped, and countless voluntary groups have helped the vulnerable and lonely e.g. with shopping. The situation has created a common understanding that we are part of something bigger and that we fight for others and not just ourselves. That we must look inside of ourselves and change our behaviour in order to protect the vulnerable in our society.
During the second world war, Churchill spoke to the nation and praised the pilots from the Royal Air Force, as they had prevented the German invasion, Luftwaffe’s ravaging Blitz over the English Channel. He said: ”Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Today in 2020 every Dane can in return thank each other for so much – so that the crisis is under control. Public spirit and responsibility has prevailed everywhere in Denmark, and I do not think I am alone in being proud of our society and the responsible politicians across the different parties, who have stood together and done what they could to protect the public during a crisis no one has experienced before. I am so thankful and impressed by the effort, and we owe all the responsible politicians a thank you – even though they have begun to quarrel again.
Existential crisis and what is important in life?
One thing is how we have acted collectively and as citizens, but what has had an effect inside all of us?
It probably sounds strange to you, but I think the crisis has made a difference to all of us, we have all had death a little closer to home. It is actually a little taboo to talk about death in Denmark, but suddenly we have had it as an unannounced visitor. For the first time we have had to acknowledge that we are not in control of everything – not even death. The pandemic could not be controlled and unfortunately and tragically people died around us. We were really scared to lose our grandparents and loved ones and also scared for our own life.
Earlier one talked about the Anthropocene age. Anthropocene means modern age of humans. It has been an era where humans have taken control of nature, evolution and life on earth. However, one can say that era ended abruptly in March 2020 in our little kingdom.
The poet Morten Søndergaard encapsulated the essence in his famous poem VI RUS on 13 March in the newspaper “Information”. Here are a few lines translated from the original in Danish:
Someone coughs after eating a bat in China
The stock exchange cracks in Wall Street
and nature smiles.
The world has changed.
The world is different.
Nature is showing its teeth.
Dracula has become draconian.
There will be no Batman coming to save the world.
No, there will be no Batman saving the world, and in such a short time our lives have been put to the test and we have learned that the immortal, carefree time of youth is short-lived. In short, we have all experienced death and had thoughts of the fragility of life. It strengthens our love for life. It also strengthens our awareness that the everyday problems that filled our lives before do not matter one bit and were just a waste of time. It strengthens our awareness of that the fewer problems we have the more we exaggerate the small problems that we spend too much time on. We can now see our lives in a different light, and we can hopefully see how privileged and spoiled we are in this society.
A research group from the University of Southern Denmark has recently researched what happens during a life threatening crisis and have written the feature article ”Denmark passed the existential pressure test”. They tell us, among other things, that earlier crises have put people’s lives in perspective and given an existential crisis which has changed the world and human’s perception of life. This is the case now. They refer to the father of crisis psychology, the psychiatrist Johan Cullberg, who points out that a big crisis can change people and sometimes destroy lives. However, crises also have the potential to develop and create positive change – making us aware that we need each other.
When lives and the enjoyment of life is threatened, as we have experienced and still experience, this causes reflection and existential doubts. What kind of life have I been living until now? Is it the life I really want to live and where is my life leading? What values do I really have, and is it so important that I pursue the highest grades and most prestigious job, crave material goods and live half of my life on superficial social media? All that is unimportant in the light of death and the fear of losing those we love, it is just so trivial.
I honestly think that the Corona crisis has made us think more about the lives we lead and maybe the crisis will result in more presence and more thought about the path of our lives and less autopilot in the consumer hamster wheel of life. We should live in the here and now that means something. I think that the Copernicus moment has happened for many of us, as we have realised that the world does not revolve around us, and it is not just about us and fulfilling our own needs. It was about time.
The youth and education in the time of Corona.
So, what has happened to you – young people – during this crisis? Yes, you have had to take criticism and a warning finger from grown-ups, scientists and from other opinion formers. There have most likely been some irresponsible young people just as there have been countless irresponsible grown-ups. However, it has not been fair as in reality you have managed this strange situation in a far more dignified, calm and responsible way than many grown-ups. It has been proven in a new report from the Technical University of Denmark that many young people have shown great responsibility during the Corona Crisis, nearly too much. You have followed the rules – and often more than necessary – and you have not been worried for yourselves, but very worried for the elderly in the family and in society. So, there is a contrast between the public debate about the irresponsible young people, when in reality many more young people have been responsible.
I myself have to admit that I was also a sceptic – bordering as being a grumpy old man. I was also worried about drinking sprees, wildness, and the legendary 7-7-parties that I heard a rumour about. I actually considered closing the school, fearing infection afterwards. My fear turned into shame when I talked to you on a Monday in May. You told me that you had considered a party but when you heard the announcement from the authorities you decided to cancel it yourselves. I want to apologise to you all that I had those thoughts. Sorry!
You are actually very responsible, thoughtful and fantastic young people. What looked like a normal end to the year and teaching was shattered for you, but you fought on and have adapted to the severe changes and the prospect of losing a lot of what makes your graduation time fantastic. You have shown that you are responsible young people, that are part of something bigger and do your duty for the common good – in spite of having to suffer deprivation. You have, in accordance with a famous philosopher’s words, shown that ”he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”.
In pompous toasts, cultural and general education is often spoken of, and the subject is discussed to death in many academic ivory towers just as there are fruitless discussions about which education has the patent on culture and education. There is often a lot of focus on subject insight, knowledge and competences that should be acquired, and that is of course the foundation for your education.
However, culture and education are not just about liberation in the realm of great minds, academic competence and impressive words, but also to take action and act like responsible citizens and look after the vulnerable in society. Culture and education should be actualised every day in real life, otherwise it is just hot air, bullshit and something you can see on television. You have actualised your culture and education during the crisis and also during your educational course at school. You have in fact made a difference, you have taken action and known that you have made responsible, ethical and independent decisions, and you have acted showing public spirit. You stayed home during the worst part of the crisis, you have taken care of your grandparents, family members with chronic illness and you have lived by the rules from the authorities and more. During the first days when we re-opened, you came back to school with two meters distance to each other and we were very impressed how you managed the new rules so wonderfully and responsibly. You are world class!
Besides the fact that you have dealt with the crisis fantastically, and that is has been fun to hear stories of virtual teaching from bed, bathroom and without clothes, many of you have also been involved in working for sustainability at school, in town and in all society. You have put all the stories of self-centred young people to shame. Members of the student committee and many of you have also had focus on the need for more social presence and concentration during lessons. The result was the Experiment, where the school shut down the internet and collected in mobile phones for a whole week. It wasn’t carried out so well by us, but the results were thought-provoking as were the reactions from many of you. It is so unique that the students themselves take the lead and suggest such an initiative at school, and this also proves public spirit and responsibility, and your initiative will also be used during the next school year with our new students.
You have shown that you are proactive players in your own lives and that you are excited about something bigger than yourselves. You have shown that the object clause in the school’s declaration is applied and not just fine words, and that you fight for a good cause. You make us so proud and make it meaningful to run a school. We do this because this is where you become whole and responsible young people!
You are also fun to be with and it has been fantastic to be part of your lives – also outside of the classroom. You are initiators, regardless whether it is about crazy ideas, great concerts, entrepreneurship, sport, film, theatre or the legendary Kapaki parties. Many of you know that I have sneaked around at many parties, but I want you to know it is a part of my job that I really love. I love how carefree you are, your spontaneity and fantastic energy. When I see your joy and enthusiasm it makes me feel so terribly old and I feel a stab to the heart and a sinking feeling. What you experience and do here and now is what we all miss from times past, and wish we could experience again, just for one day. This is how it will be for you very soon and I actually think that missing school will be the words of the year for 2020.
Further in life
I have been talking about all that has happened in the past and now I want to finish with what I hope you have learned and will take with you. Maybe you have forgotten this in a month and you most likely have forgotten my speech. I really hope you will get out there and party and enjoy life without thoughts of anything else than the here and now and the joy that bubbles inside of you. However, I hope you will take some of your experiences with you further in life. You have in fact lived in accordance with classical virtues, showing self-discipline, willpower, thinking of others more than yourselves and focusing on the important things in life and that which you can do something about. You have shown that you are aware that you are part of something bigger. You have learned something else and more valuable than we have ever learned when we were young.
I want to thank you deeply for being allowed to share your fantastic company during these years, and a big thank you for the way you have handled the worst crisis in 80 years. It has been a privilege to have you in the building and I am so sad that our paths shall part. I also want to thank your teachers and all the employees at our school who have worked hard for you in the classrooms, at the screens, in the canteen, boarding school, administration, kitchen, with cleaning trolleys and the service department. Without you there is nothing and I am so deeply thankful for your untiring efforts for our wonderful students in good times and times of crisis. Please give them all a big round of applause.
Dear year of 2020. You have experienced life with mixed blessings. You have experienced that it has been fun, fantastic and educational but you have also experienced the seriousness that no other generation has. Fortunately, you have been optimistic, with unfailing good spirits and have handled everything so wonderfully. You have done what Charlie Chaplin put into words in the lovely song “Smile”, which is a tribute to life for better or worse, and I hope you will continue like this:
Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking
When there are clouds in the sky, you’ll get by
If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
Light up your face with gladness
Hide every trace of sadness
Although a tear may be ever so near
That’s the time you must keep on trying
Smile, what’s the use of crying?
You’ll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just smile
Dear year of 2020. You will not be the Corona year that lost everything. You will be the year that showed public spirit, you have fought stoically with unfailing good spirits and did something selfless, that not even your parents, grandparents or any of us have ever done. You are something special and we will never ever forget you. Remember that!
With these words I hereby graduate the year of 2020 from Nyborg Gymnasium.