Chief Justice John Roberts delivered a thought-provoking commencement address at his son’s ninth grade graduation in 2017, when he told the rising teenagers at New Hampshire’s Cardigan Mountain School, “I wish you bad luck.”

His point was that, contrary to the notion of a brilliant future for the sons and daughters of privilege, life is hard and only by experiencing disappointment can one prepare to be a decent human being. To ears accustomed to hearing about everyone getting a prize, this was a bit cacophonous.

When I read it, I thought, “Hallelujah!”

Yesterday, my son graduated from the University of Virginia, here in Charlottesville. His four-year journey began the year after Roberts’ New Hampshire commencement. More directly, his class is the first of the “new start” following the horrendous “Unite the Right” march here in August 2017, in which a counter protester was killed by a white nationalist, just months after Roberts’ speech.

Fittingly, Max’s commencement speaker was an African American history professor who spoke about her experience at UVA over the last four decades. Her principal focus was on grace, the spiritual notion at the heart of Christianity — which African Americans have taught the rest of us about over the course of America’s relatively short past.

To have suffered enslavement, prejudice and unfair treatment before the law in the very country devised to show the rest of the world how democracy works, as Black Americans have, and NOT be contorted by rage and resentment is a testament to healing and the redemptive power of grace.

The match that lit the unrest here nearly five years ago was the removal of a confederate era statue. In other words, it was a change in how we observe history.

As we drove back to our downtown Airbnb apartment to cool off, we passed an empty pedestal. It didn’t belong to the statue whose removal the Unite the Right marchers were protesting, but rather to Lewis and Clark — the explorers widely credited with opening up the American West. What did they do wrong? I wondered aloud. Our Middle Eastern Lyft driver answered:

“Nothing. You can’t change history; it is what it is.”

Of course he had a point. Efforts to sanitize history to the fashion of the moment serve no one particularly well.

Charlottesville has changed over the four years I’ve been visiting my son here. Now on the storied grounds of what southerners call The University is carved a memorial to the enslaved workers who built the place. Nearby at Monticello, home to the university’s most famous president, Thomas Jefferson, the south hillside has been transformed to recognize the slaves who once made the bucolic life here possible (one of whom bore Jefferson children).

While ice would not last long in the southern heat, there is often talk about the glacial pace of change. The ugliness of August 2017 distracts from the change that has been happening here over the past century. Time may not heal all wounds, but it is a necessary component to healing, as well as to change.

“Never sacrifice critical thinking for sloganeering,” the keynote speaker advised the graduates, and added “remember what happened here.” She was speaking not only of one violent day, but more pointedly about the cumulative lessons learned both in the classroom and from one another. It was pretty good advice, I thought.

Like all of the parents with graduating children this season, I am immensely proud of my son. He earned top grades, was active across the spectrum of campus activities, some of which he invented, and already has a job. I question how I got so lucky, but it is sometimes better not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

University of Virginia class of 2022 commencement May 21. Photo by Sam Patten

Over 500 graduates yesterday were the first generation in their families to graduate from college. In front of us sat an interracial couple of parents, nearly two generations after Loving v. Virginia. We are improving, and it is happening not through revolution but rather evolution. At the center of all of this lies the courage to learn.

Congratulations to all the graduates of 2022. Like the chief justice of the Supreme Court of the United States suggested at the outset of what became five tumultuous years for our country, there’s been some bad luck. Yet we move forward. May its lessons make us all stronger.

Sam Patten is a recovering political consultant who was raised in Knox County and worked for Maine’s last three Republican senators.