A Speech to Young People in a COVID Era
It was almost two years ago when I was approached by my high school to go back and give a speech to both the staff and students. The year was 2020; the first year of the COVID pandemic that we currently find ourselves in. I found the event rather strange in the sense that I was giving my speech in a hall that was mostly empty. Government-mandated social distancing requirements meant that all students were locked away in their classrooms and were avidly watching the event as it was live-streamed on YouTube. It was a completely different dynamic to what I was used to.
Writing the speech in a climate of uncertainty, fatigue and anxiousness did prove itself to be a rather difficult task. 2020 was hard for a lot of people. At first I didn't know what to say - What do I tell students? I knew deep down that 2020 was only the beginning of what would be a multi-year health event with multi-decade social and economic consequences. I wanted to tell them the truth: No guys, things aren't exactly over so strap in for the ride.
But at the same time I wanted to give them something positive to hold on to. The entire year was masked by sad news. It was depressing. I wanted to inspire optimism and hope. I thought: Despite challenges of COVID, there is still hope for the future and it all starts with appreciating those who are around us.
Here is what I found myself saying to them. I think it's fair to say that my comments ring even more true now in mid-2022 then what they did in 2020.
Firstly, I would like to congratulate everyone for reaching the end of what has been a very unpredictable and difficult year. In a schooling context, all of you, both staff and students, have had to grapple with disruption, online learning and lingering uncertainty as to how COVID will play out. And I would like to make particular mention of our Senior students. The HSC (note: The HSC is what students complete in the final year of high school in NSW and determines which universities students attend) is already challenging enough without COVID, let alone in circumstances where students have faced rapid disruption to their education. The Year 12 cohort that has just finished their HSC faced a difficult year of stress and uncertainty. And to our current Year 12s, while you are just starting with your HSC, you still have a lot to grapple with as well. Perhaps you might have a little catch-up to do in order to make up for lost time at the beginning of Year 11, which is a very important foundational year to settle into the study habits expected of senior students.
And I would also like to make mention of another cohort of students who often get forgotten about: Our Year 7s. Settling into high school can be rather daunting, let alone in a COVID world where your introduction to high school has been disrupted. But nonetheless, we have all gotten through this year. In doing so, we have demonstrated resilience and strength, and that should be congratulated.
I think it’s quite to fair to say that COVID has brought a lot to the surface and has given all of us a lot to think about. Personally, I have found that COVID has taught me how important it is to appreciate people regardless of which walk of life they come from, especially our silent heroes. I have come to have a greater appreciation of our healthcare workers, nurses and doctors, who are continuing to wage war on the front line against COVID around the world. COVID is their reality day in, and day out. Sometimes we just expect them to be there for us without realising how lucky we are to have them. And we are very lucky that they are willing to be there for us. These people are our real teachers, our real heroes and our genuine role models, because you cannot put a price on their dedication and sacrifice.
I have also come to have a greater appreciation of the people around me, particularly my friends. Not being able to see my friends that much this year (or last year because of Uni) has forced me to make the most of the little time that we have spent together. Good friends are also unsung heroes. These are the people that you grow up with. These are the people that want the best for you. And most importantly, these are the people who will help you get through the challenges that come hand-in-hand with difficult times.
Now I mention our nurses, doctors and true friends because we are in need of these types of people. We face an uncertain world. We have a lingering environmental crisis on our hands. And we also face uncertain economic times. I must say that I took a deep breath when Josh Frydenberg said that our national debt will reach $1 trillion in 2024. $1 trillion is a scary figure and highlights the depth of the economic crisis Australia is facing. The road to recovery is bumpy. What doesn’t help with us navigating this uncertainty is the fact that we live in a world in which what is true is becoming indistinguishable from what is false. We are living in an increasingly fake world of social media and sensationalism, where the truth is willingly compromised in the name of money and power. Navigating this brave new world we live in is difficult. What will get us through these times, however, are genuine qualities such as friendship, humility and honesty, because these things cannot be faked.
And I suppose this highlights another very important as well. Yes, there are many things outside of your control. COVID and how our government responds to this health and economic crisis are just a few. Perhaps we feel rather anxious and overwhelmed when thinking about the future. However, at the time same, there are a significant number of things that are within our control. You can control how you treat your friends and other people. You can decide who to be friends with. You can decide whether to be true to yourself, and to be truthful to others. You can decide how you want to spend your time, and whether you want to spend your time being productive and doing things you enjoy rather than doing things you hate. These are all things that are within your control. And you will find that your world will change. Or, to quote my year coordinator, “Take care of the little things, and the big things will take care of themselves.”
As we move forward, I think another important thing to remember is to give. We can only start to fully appreciate the people around us by giving something ourselves. To have good friends, you need to give. In today’s world of instant gratification, it is rather easy to take. It’s quite easy to take other people’s time. But giving your time to someone else is more difficult. This year, I have had the absolute privilege of working with the Sydney University Centre for English Teaching, where I have helped international students with their English. For me, it becomes very rewarding to watch how the students I help become more confident over time. When I first meet them, they are often quite shy and fearful of making mistakes. Eventually they learn to overcome these challenges, and in doing so, they become more confident with their English skills, and by extension, themselves. Out of all the people in my broader University community, international students have been affected the most, and it is an absolute privilege to be able to give my time, effort and passion to them even if it is only for a relatively short one and a half hours per week. But one and a half hours per week can go a long way. Let alone a friendship that has lasted several years.
We still have a long way to go with a lot of things. Take responsibility. Be appreciative. And most importantly, keep your true friends close.