Welcome to your last high school English class. Ever.
What’s coming up s a period of exams, studying at home, and saying goodbye to the people and spaces that have been an enormous part of your life. I’ll be here, reviewing what we did, planning for next year, revisiting. I anticipate solitude. I’ll miss you. I was going to say that I’ll be lonely, but I’m reminded of Thoreau, who talked about solitude and said, “I have a great deal of company in my house; especially in the morning, when no-one comes to call.” In these hours of solitude, I anticipate the company of Shakespeare and Beckett, Seamus Heaney and William Blake, of my friends Didi and Gogo, Willy and Linda, Sam and Hallie. The work I’ll do — planning new lessons, throwing out ones that didn’t work, adding elements to make some more meaningful — brings me company. Reading your writing and writing back to you did the same. In my own aspirational mind, I’d like to think this solitude is similar to a monk’s — silently, solitarily seeking a better self. Emerson in Self-Reliance talks about work as prayer, and he quotes one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, Fletcher, whose wise character Caratach said God’s “hidden meaning lies in our endeavours; Our valors are our best gods.”
What I take from this advice is that that when we truly put our hearts and souls into what we do, our work becomes, if you’re religious, God’s work. This year I’ve been repeatedly inspired by you because I’ve seen you doing things you love to do. You’ve created beauty and shown grace. Seeing you do what you love — playing basketball or hockey, creating art, photographs, and films, dancing, playing music, acting, making things in Moss’s class, designing a great yearbook, publishing a great issue of Brainwash, planning events for the student government, helping other students to understand things you are passionate about — I’m inspired to try and do what I love to do: share great literature with you.
Then again, during that review of this year, there are likely to be moments of regret — missed opportunities to ask the right question or give the right kind of praise, to pause and reflect. You may find yourself feeling some regrets during these waning moments of high school. If you do, here’s a suggestion: Cut it out.
At least that’s what I take from Emerson, who said that just as when we work from our souls we are offering a form of true prayer, when we dwell on regrets we utter “false prayers.” His solution: “Regret calamities, if you can thereby help the sufferer; if not, attend your own work, and already the evil begins to be repaired.” If I have somehow caused you to suffer this year, or to feel that your time is ill-spent, I regret that calamity. If my regrets assuage your suffering, I’m happy. But the focus will be on making this course better. It’s my dream that some year this room will become one of those spaces that where students have created their sense of belonging, where they feel right about school. I see them around: the art room, the maker lab, the drama room, the student government office, the gym. When I get this right, some day, I hope this room will be one of those spaces. And I hope that you will discover your own spaces where you can do what you love to do and make whatever corner of the world you land in better.
Now, however, we are here, in this space, for your last class, entering the season of lasts. I like that word, “last” with all its ambiguity. I hope I’ve lasted this far without boring you, and I hope some of the works we’ve read leave a lasting impression. Looking at our classroom the walls, I hope making these collages of words have left words and ideas that last in your literary memory.
I hope you’ll continue to do the things that bring you joy and that convey what’s right with the world to the rest of us. I hope you’ll discover new passions and interests, learn new languages, step out of routines, live new experiences. Most of all, I hope you find love. Looking over the works from this year, it strikes me that many of the characters we’ve gotten to know live in loveless worlds. Macbeth? He left it behind for ambition. Jack and Algy? They may have changed their names to Ernest, but until they get real, Gwendolyn and Cecily will find equally real love in their fictional personal diaries. Willy Loman? Plenty of people try to love him, but he’s so wrapped up by the impossible dream that he can’t feel it. So he chases girls on the road and bullies his family so much that all he gets is what he thinks he wants to hear. Strangely enough, I find the last two plays we studied strangely hopeful. In Godot, Didi and Gogo suffer in a world where their purpose is lost. Didi complains they’re “bored to death” and Gogo always wants to go. But in the end, they stick to each other. Who could do that without hope? Much more optimistic, of course is Sam from Master Harold. Sam, who endures the humiliation and the violence of Apartheid, but who sees the possibility for better things in Hally. And like his “man of magnitude,” Jesus Christ, Sam turns the other cheek when Hally strikes him with a violently racist joke. And even when Hally spits in his face, he offers him friendship and kindness, redemption and love. Sam lets Hally leave, but with an invitation to “fly another kite” some day. There’s no guarantee that Hally will return to Sam and change his thinking, but if Sam doesn’t make the offer, he surely won’t. Willy laments at the end of Death of a Salesman, “I don’t have a thing in the ground.” Sam, on the other hand, has planted a seed of kindness, hope, and understanding.
One last “I hope”: That at some time you’ll think, “At Last!” as you grasp and own something inside yourself that’s grown out of one of the many seeds of wisdom or knowledge or awareness or truth that are planted in the works we’ve studied. In all these books and poems and stories and plays there are lessons that teach us to be better human beings. If you do, in some future moment, find yourself digging through roots and memories awakened in your head and excavating thoughts about things we’ve read, then I hope by some telepathy your discovery and curiosity and wonder will dive into a time-travel tube, back to today. And in that moment, I’ll hear the future whisper to the past. If I hear that whisper, I’d like to whisper back: “This is not a test. And everybody passes*.”
Have a great life.
*I completely ripped that line off from Tony Hoagland. The poem is “Memory as a Hearing Aid.”