Celebrating our 2020 Valedictorians, Salutatorians, and STAR Students at a time when ‘Everything Changed, Nothing Changed’

Despite a global pandemic, we have entered a time of celebration! Kicking off the #WorthTheWait graduation season, Atlanta Public Schools this week held a virtual Val/Sal/STAR breakfast ceremony.

In years past, we gathered at the Georgia Power building for a well-appointed breakfast ceremony to honor the best of the best of our beautiful students and some of our amazing teachers. It pained me that we continued to be apart when we should be celebrating in person today.

But we celebrated anyway as shown in the video below.

For the ceremony, I was privileged – for the sixth year – to present the challenge to the honorees of the 2020 Val/Sal/STAR Awards ceremony. In some ways, offering a challenge at this time – right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic – seems anticlimactic and maybe a bit excessive.

Here’s what I told them:

Haven’t you already been challenged enough by finishing school in virtual classrooms? On top of that, you have been asked to wait. You have been asked to be patient. You have been told that it will be better or at least OK … on the other end.

Yes … that may all be true.

But I am here to tell you that you will be challenged again and again and that the patience and resilience you learn now will serve you a hundred fold in the years to come. But I’m not going to deceive you in saying that the world hasn’t changed. Yes, you still have to study hard, work hard, and play hard… that hasn’t changed. But you will have to study differently, work differently, and maybe even play differently.

But you can rise to any occasion. Yes, we are in a pandemic, and it has been difficult. But challenges and difficulties and heartbreaks … they have all happened long before self-isolation and social distancing. They happen every year, every week, every day, every minute.

One of those heartbreaks happened a little more than a month ago with the passing of the Rev. Joseph Lowery, the dean of the civil rights movement. His work on the frontlines of equal rights for all certainly influenced me and my decision to go into education and to actually come to Atlanta. I was fortunate to meet with him a few times in person, where he always impressed upon me the importance of that personal mission. For him, it was civil rights; for me, education; for you, it’s in medicine, business, science, math, engineering, the arts, politics and more.

But there was something he said – when he offered the benediction during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 – that seems most appropriate for today. He was actually referencing a speech he had made a quarter of a century before that.

“Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”

I thought about those words as I reviewed the hard work of the Class of 2020’s Valedictorians, Salutatorians and STAR students and saw your college and career plans. It made me think about all of the work that will you have to do differently, but then I realized that much of the work has not … and will not … change.

As I wrote to you a couple of weeks ago, what I see as the greatest challenge—and opportunity— for your generation is rebuilding the world on the other side of this pandemic and making it kinder, fairer, more just, and much better than it was before.

The disparities and inequities in our communities have always existed … they have not changed. However, they are exacerbated due to the virus and that is the world you will lead us through. We need you to remember that. I believe you are strong enough to persevere and rebuild our communities for the better.

To you – Cy’Riah, Lauren, Alexis, Joshua, Emily, Soleil, Efe, Mahlon, Miriam, Lucy, Kadija, and Jordan – as you go into careers in health and medicine, you must understand that the world will look to you as never before to keep them healthy, to keep them safe, to make them feel protected and loved. We are depending upon you to get us through this pandemic and be better prepared for the next one and the next one and the next one.

The pandemic has made it even more clear who among us is the most vulnerable. I’m talking about our poor, black, and brown brethren, who need our help more than ever, and your work must reflect that.

But you must always instill trust, care, and confidence with patients, clients, and colleagues. That hasn’t changed.

To you – Rashad, Jacauri, Solomon and Menelik – as you go into careers in business and marketing, you must come up with new sustainable models and innovations that can survive the next and all subsequent crises. And it involves teleworking and teleschooling, so you may have to be the ones to figure out how EVERYONE has technology and access in the future.

But you must always be true and ethical and fair and adhere to best practices. That hasn’t changed.

To you – Kacie, Amari, Edward, Shaniya, Charlotte, Gary, and Tabius – as you explore careers in the arts from design to fashion to music to literature to film, you must find new ways to symbolize the human condition, our triumphs, our sufferings, our failures. You must create new avenues for art, especially after a pandemic has shut down so many.

But you must always be honest, empathetic, and curious amidst your creativity. That hasn’t changed.

To you – Jordan, Wahhad, Daijah, Makilah, Selena, Kavi, Clarice, Ethan, Lauren, Jazmari, Ta’Destiny, and Blair – as you move into careers in science, technology, engineering, and math, you must create innovations the world has never seen for a future we have yet to comprehend. When we talk about a right to connectivity – the right to good devices and high speed Internet access – you have to be involved because you are the ones who will have to figure the technology out.

But you must study hard, understand past innovations, and strive to advance our knowledge and capabilities. That hasn’t changed.

To you – Ari and Joseph – who aspire to career in politics and diplomacy, you must strive for a better world, where voices are heard and respected, even amid disagreement.

But you must never lose hope or a sense of fair play. That hasn’t changed.

And to you – Ezra – who remains undecided about his college major or career. Yes, everything has changed. Everything has changed so much it is hard to decide now, just as you are finishing high school, to determine exactly what it is you want to do for the next five years, 10 years, 30 years. But you don’t have to … not right now. There remains the opportunity for you to explore your many options in life and to keep challenging yourself. That hasn’t changed.

Remember, Valedictorians, Salutatorians, and STAR students of the Class of 2020: “Everything has changed, and nothing has changed.”

It was appropriate when the Rev. Lowery first gave that speech more than 35 years ago, it was appropriate with President Obama in 2009, and it is certainly appropriate now.

So much has changed, you will face numerous challenges that will demand greater innovations, much more work, and a higher level of patience. Bearing through these unprecedented times as a pandemic engulfed the globe has been just one of them.

What hasn’t changed is that Atlanta has a class of amazing students who will make us proud. You have already made us proud … very proud! Your parents, caregivers, teachers join me in allowing you to pause and enjoy this moment. You, too, should be proud of all you have done to be here at this critical benchmark in your life.

But more work for you lies ahead and challenges will come. And you will face them because you all have emerged stronger and smarter with the abilities, the maturity, and the determination to forge ahead despite any obstacles, challenges, or distractions.

On behalf of everyone at APS, blessings and best wishes to all of you!

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