When Barack, Michelle & I Took the Stage (Or So I Dreamed)

When Barack, Michelle & I Took the Stage (Or So I Dreamed) May 9, 2020

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Last night I had a dream that I delivered a commencement address to hundreds of thousands of graduates. I stood onstage alongside Barack and Michelle, our collective messages a thing of beauty as we each delivered the most eloquent of speeches to the class of 2020.

I told you this was a good dream.

But here’s the thing: the Obamas were rather late in asking me to speak. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I said yes before Barack could even finish his sentence, only to hop on a private jet ten minutes later for a cross-country flight to their home in Washington, D.C. But I didn’t exactly have a whole lot of time to prepare my speech, because just a minute later, all dolled up and ready to go, it was time for me to speak.

It was a moment of slight panic, like one of those falling-through-the-sky dreams, but in an I’m-on-live-television-with-the-Obamas sort of way. I mean, what would I say, and even more so, what should I say to the students who deserved their moment of walking across the stage?

After all, we have all experienced grief in one way, shape or form over the last couple of months.

For graduating seniors in high school and college especially, the grief of not being able to celebrate the milestones of childhood and adolescence feels particularly tender to me.

But, back to the dream, because a moment or so later the theme of the speech came to me:

Already but not yet.  

“Already, you’ve done the work,” I said to the graduates, Barack winking at me from behind.

“Already, you’ve put in the hours. You’ve studied for the tests, you’ve read the books, you’ve stayed up too late and gotten up too early. Your hands have cramped from typing furiously and your eyes have boggled inside your brain, begging for a break from the screen, from the strain, from the work.

Already, you’ve dreamed of this day. You’ve worked three jobs on the side to pay for this day. You’ve watched tears role down your mama’s eyes when she realized that you’d be the first in the family to walk across this stage. You’ve watched a smile beam on your father’s face when you made him proud – when really, all you had to do was just be you.

Because graduates, already, you are loved – as you have been from the very beginning. Already, you’re a success – whether or not your grades reflect it. And already, you’ve make the rest of us really, truly, crazy-mad, beyond proud of proud of you.

But the whole phrase? Well, it goes, “already …but not yet.” And I kind of hate that last part right now.

Not yet is it time for you to actually walk across the stage and be honored for the work you so rightfully deserve. Not yet is it time for you to hug those friends you’ve fought along side and squeeze those teachers who’ve changed your life because they’ve believed in who you are, maybe more than you ever believed in yourself.

I admit that this “not yet” is not fair. It is heartbreaking. How I wish I could wave my fairy wand in the air and make this whole thing (especially this global pandemic) go away.

But also? When I see the second word of that phrase, that sometimes ugly conjunction “but” that our English teachers taught can change the entire meaning of the sentence around, I can’t help but lean into the words that immediately follow it.

Because in that “but not yet,” although you’ve already done the work and should so rightfully be honored and celebrated, it’s not yet the time. Even though that is not in the least fair, I thank you for understanding the reasons why and for understanding that this is a justice issue – that by staying home and throwing your cap in the air from the middle of an urban city street in New York City or from the front porch of a rural prairie farm in Texas, you are saving the lives of thousands of other Americans (and beyond, around the world). And this speaks volumes to who you are and to who you’ve already, always been.

See? Full circle, once again, because as we lean into this “not yet,” we also find ourselves leaning into hope.

Just as Michelle and Barack and I celebrate you virtually today, we wait with baited breath to celebrate with you in person, in the days and months and years to come.

What a celebration that’s going to be! After all, you’ve done it. Already, already, already.

So graduates, I honor you and your achievements today, as we wait, together. As we hope, together. As we hold onto a better world to come …because of you, together.”

My portion over, Barack and Michelle spoke soon after. Then we saluted and honored the graduates, and I meanwhile, continued to wonder what it means to live in an already but not yet world – because whether or not we find ourselves walking across a stage to receive a diploma, we find ourselves caught in the middle, tangled in time, clinging to hope.

So, we lean into the “already”, because sometimes it’s the only thing we can do. Likewise, we hold onto the “but not yet,” knowing that not just with but after the conjunction comes hope. 

To this hope we cling …just before boarding a flight on our  private jet back to the great state of California).

I’m in this with you, graduates,

c.

What would you say to the graduates who can’t walk across the stage? What does “already but not yet” mean to you right now? Also, be sure to head to my website to sign up for more exclusive essays if you haven’t already! 

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