Frontline workers are the mostly unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their jobs are critical and can’t be done from home. They’re nurses and orderlies, grocery store workers and letter carriers. They run warehouses, deliver packages and drive trucks, buses and trains.
These workers may have been required to be on the job during the pandemic, but many — often guided by a sense of duty, commitment, compassion and honor — are proud to do it.
Duty, commitment, compassion and honor. These are thematic cornerstones of high school graduation speeches, so NPR asked everyday workers, who normally would not be asked speak at a commencement ceremony, to offer insight forged by the simple act of showing up every day and doing what needs to be done.
Ashley Robinson, Nurse
Dear Class of 2020,
My name is Ashley Robinson and I have been a nurse for nine years.
Working on the frontline during this pandemic has had its ups and down.
My coworkers and I worked hard to adjust to the increasing volume of patients coming to be treated for COVID-19. We had to become creative in finding ways to take care of the influx of patients.
During this pandemic I have learned to be more compassionate for patients because they were alone, scared and without their family.
One day the ER was filled to capacity. We were taking care of patients in the hall because they were too sick to leave in the lobby. Once I became so overwhelmed, I had to remove myself. I walked out on the ramp and FaceTimed my husband and I broke down. At that moment I felt defeated and wanted to give up. But I realized the situation was much bigger than me. As a leader, I had to stay strong because not only the patients depended on me, but my coworkers also.
You will have to learn to be strong as well. I know you all had to adjust to this pandemic also. Your senior year ended early and you did not have a prom or graduation ceremony. Even though your celebration isn’t traditional, it’s still joyous and memorable.
So stay strong and continue to persevere. Take this time to reflect on the labors of the past, the accomplishments of the present and the possibilities of the future. Congratulations class of 2020, the world is yours.
Nick Schlatz, Warehouse Worker
Dear Class of 2020,
My name is Nick Schlatz. Congratulations!
This building here is 1.2 million square feet and employs more than 2,000 full-time associates.
We process a lot of larger sized items: canoes, rafts, furniture, bikes, ladders. But suddenly that all started to change and my team started seeing paper towels, masks, cleaning supplies, disinfectant wipes.
That’s when I started to realize this was a serious global issue, and we were working to help our community stay safe and stay at home.
I have roommates that are working from home every day, and I notice that their routine has come out of place. And that’s when it really stood out to me that what I was doing was considered an essential role.
We had a shift one night; we were over staffed, so the manager who was on shift was asking his associates to go home, see if they wanted to cut out. And the responses he was getting was simply, no, I’m going to stay. I like what I’m doing. I’m making a difference.
Now, there was a quote that I came across in college that really stood out to me. And that quote is “Adversity introduces a man to himself.” That means you really show yourself when there is no plan. That’s when you find out who you really are. We weren’t ready for this. We weren’t expecting this.
This is not an ideal situation to be in for anyone, especially you guys as graduates. But looking to yourself, look into what you’ve done and look to what you’re about to do. Those next steps are going to determine the rest of your life. And that starts right now.
Again, graduates of 2020, congratulations. Excellent work.
Carlos Rodriguez, Mail Carrier
Dear Class of 2020,
We are in the middle of an unforeseen crisis that you and I have been cast into. On many occasions, natural disasters have decimated Puerto Rico. The COVID-19 pandemic is the new disaster. We are getting to know too well.
I have taken a few words which I have made pillars of my life, and I hope they help any of you that I can reach.
The first one I’d like to say: resilience. The key to being resilient is being able to adapt to your reality. Using rain water to wash clothes. Reading by candlelight in the dark. Walking miles to get a few gallons of gasoline for a small generator that keeps a simple refrigerator running.
Try to be resilient while sustaining a positive outlook — not only for your sake, but also the sake of those around you.
This brings me to kindness. A small hello with a smile. Simple consideration for the elderly. Sharing enthusiasm for a small child’s bicycle. These are seemingly small gestures that can provide some comfort to another person who might need that small act of kindness.
This brings me to commitment. I have a commitment to deliver supplies to my community in Guaynabo. I would have had more than enough reason to hide from the risks and just stay home. My reward for this commitment: the face of hope. Every person who sees my little white truck with red and blue stripes and the eagle with the words United States Postal Service can see that we are committed. And that fills my heart with pride.
This brings me to balance. Work, rest, recreation and family create a balance in your life. Balance affords you the opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest.
So these four words — resilience, commitment, kindness, balance — have helped me through the most trying situations.
In Puerto Rico we have a phrase that unites the whole island to stand together against any adversity: Puerto Rico se levanta — Puerto Rico will rise.
To you I say, El mundo se levanta — The world will rise.
You’re here because you, too, have seen trying times and endured them. You’re capable and can take on your next challenge. You have my respect. I take my hat off to you and congratulate you.
Haley Watts, Grocery Store Cashier
Dear Class of 2020,
My name is Hayley Watts. I have been a Kroger cashier since 2019. It didn’t take long for me to form what I consider to be lifelong friendships.
But when the pandemic started, everything changed. We couldn’t get together and just enjoy the outside air after shifts. I couldn’t hug the customers that I had a bond with because it wasn’t safe. Even helping to bag groceries when the store got busy became a challenge because I didn’t want to get in anyone’s space and make them uncomfortable.
Listen: Haley Watts reads her graduation message
My most memorable moments came in the earliest days of the pandemic. I’d survived Black Friday and Christmas, but nothing could have prepared me for the sea of people that filled our store in the coming weeks. This is not the world we graduates envisioned. It feels like our accomplishments are somewhat incomplete because we didn’t get our time to dress up, or down, wear our caps and gowns and walk across the stage with our friends. We didn’t get to do senior activities, class pictures or college athletes signing day.
My sisters and I spent a good handful of nights crying.
But what I want to say is whether we had a graduation ceremony or not, you totally earned your diploma and you definitely worked hard for your degree. Nobody can take that from you.
As for my future, I will be attending Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., majoring in nursing. During this pandemic, I haven’t been afraid of being surrounded by so many potentially sick people. Instead, I felt compelled to help. My job as a Kroger cashier, assisting people in getting the medicine and other household items they needed, has solidified my dream to be a nurse. I had to exercise compassion, patience and quick thinking under pressure. And I am so very grateful for that experience.
What I hope you graduates have learned from this experience is that you have to be in the moment and live for today. Have goals and dreams. But be adaptable. Congratulations, class of 2020. We did it. And I wish you the best.