Heinen: A message to the Madison graduates of 2020

Editorial director Neil Heinen offers words of wisdom for this year's graduating class.
Illustration of Neil Heinen by Joel Kimmel

Dear graduates of the Madison Metropolitan School District Class of 2020:

Congratulations. On behalf of all of us at Madison Magazine, News 3 Now and Channel3000.com we celebrate your success. Graduation from high school is a milestone. It is one of life’s most significant achievements. It’s a passage. It is an accomplishment replete with traditions established more than a century ago which you now share with many generations of Madisonians. But in many ways the class of 2020 stands alone. It is truly one of a kind.

When you were born this century was in its infancy. But already the millennium had a place in history and before you knew it you were the post-9/11 generation. Yet who would have guessed then that the year you would graduate from high school the world would be as we know it today.

From a new perspective on the order of the world to the realization of barely imaginable health science upheaval, you came of age during two decades of head-spinning change. People of every age re-evaluated what they thought they knew, from where they came and to where they thought they were going. Through it all your class, the class of 2020, was in Madison’s public schools, watching and learning. You were preparing, not knowing you were preparing for this. Yours was the class challenged in ways no other class ever was. Yours was the senior year interrupted — of online classes, celebrations virtual and physically distanced, of yard signs and car parades. Your graduation was televised. You were indeed born to make history.

It is always slightly unfair to place upon the newly gowned shoulders of high school graduates our hopes for a better world. But we do. We must. It is both a recognition of the responsibility that comes with an education and an acknowledgement of the failures of those who have created this world into which you have graduated. They are weighty expectations. But the truth is we need you.We need your idealism and your optimism. We need your creativity and your wild dreams. We need your diversity and your natural value of otherness. And as has been made abundantly clear during a graduation like no other, we need your resilience, your courage and your good humor.

Much has been asked of you already. But at the risk of being presumptuous I’d like to speak on behalf of the entire greater Madison community and ask of you just a bit more. Stay connected. Stay involved. Stay, period. Think about making Madison your home and how you can make it better. We are excited for your immediate futures. College awaits, service beckons, work is at hand. The world will reopen and you will be called to discover it. Take advantage of every opportunity. Explore, learn and grow. But we also hope many of you will come back and help create the Madison of the future, your future. You have so much to offer. Already we’ve seen your determination, your creativity and imagination, your entrepreneurial spirit, your innate sense of inclusion and value for diversity and equity. We need all of that. And we need your poetry and your music, your inventions and businesses, your fierce defense of our planet, your life-changing discoveries and the flavors of recipes only you can create.

Please help yourselves to the best of what we have left for you, to the good that really does exist in the world. Madison especially has been working hard to create an environment, imperfect as it is, in which you can make this place better, as disrupting as you need that work to be. Reject limits imposed on you. “Definitions belong to the definers,” wrote Toni Morrison, “not the defined.” You, members of the MMSD Class of 2020, are the definers. And you were born to make history.

Neil Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV. Twitter: @neilheinen

Click here to return to the MMSD Graduation Special Edition homepage for more content and a virtual version of the magazine this story appeared in.