To my students in the class of 2012:
Congratulations! You have reached the last class of your High School English careers. I hope that you have found our year together rewarding and fun… and above all, I hope that you come away from this course feeling that you have learned something. I know that I have. Poet and fiction writer Maya Angelou said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Before this year started, I had already started to try to live and work with this thought in mind. In this year, however, I think I learned more about putting this idea into practice than ever before. For the first time in more than a decade I had one responsibility: teaching. Teaching full-time has made me understand that “one responsibility” is really 82 responsibilities – each one with different hopes, fears, needs, strengths, and challenges in English and in life.
One of the things I’ve tried to do is encourage you 82 to get your ideas “out there.” The way we build knowledge and share ideas has changed enormously during your lifetimes. When you were born, people like me were just beginning to discover the internet, which we connected to through dial-up connections to land-line telephones. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, ask your grandparents. Information still came from books and magazines and newspapers. And network TV. Most people didn’t carry cell phones (and those of us who did needed an extra pocket to accommodate their bulk). Text messages didn’t exist. Personally, I’ve been slow to adapt to the new technology, but this year I tried to make our work here in the classroom a little closer to the real-world communication tools that you’ll be using in life. I hope that our experiments with blogs, twitter accounts, and other paperless forms of communication have bee as rewarding for you as they have been for me. I also hope that this class has helped you to feel more confident about expressing yourself in writing. You all have important things to say, and I hope that somewhere down the road, I’ll read something that you’ve written.
For those of you who have been learning English, I’d like to say Thank you for taking a year or more to learn about my home culture and language. You took a big risk in coming here to live and learn. I’m sure that you experienced a lot of challenges during your time here – coming to a new place is fraught with challenge. But now you are completing this part of the challenge. All of you are earning high school diplomas. To all of you who have reached out to someone from a culture different from your own, congratulations! You’ve chosen to make your lives a little richer by sharing yourself with someone else. In order to make the world better, we all need to follow your example.
For some of you, the experience of English class may still leave you with a fundamental question: Why do we do this? For you, here’s is one final attempt at answering it:
All academic study gives us knowledge, and knowledge is a good thing. By knowing stuff, we are able to understand how the world works and, one would hope, we are able to predict how things are going to turn out. Mathematics gives us order and provides models so that we can make reliable predictions. History shows us where we came from and gives us a sense of where we may be going. The sciences show us what we’re made of and how all of these forces and chemicals and atoms combine to make our world and our universe function as it does. But what about English?
I believe that Literature is special because it gives us a kind of knowledge reserved for us humans: It shows us how people feel. Literature gives us a chance to get inside of someone’s soul and live, for a time, that other person’s joy and suffering. For all 82 of you, I hope that over the year you have felt some of the joy that I find in reading great literature. If at some point, you imagined the world as Homer may have experienced it, or pictured the labyrinth of junk stacked up by Langley – or perhaps if you felt the rare pleasure of blindly and recklessly riding their bicycle through New York, or enjoyed the brief freedom of leading a group of crazy hippies through and out of the house – or imagined the years that Homer spent trapped in his own blindness and deafness while buried inside a fortress of relics, memories, and newspapers – that’s great. If you suffered a little bit with Macbeth as he tried to do too much, too fast, or if you imagined Lady Macbeth’s guilty conscience and the indelible stain of blood on her hands, or if you felt Macduff’s sense of pain at losing his family and his country – and then his joy of winning it back (Hail! King of Scotland!) then you got some of what English class offers.
I hope that you got to live inside Beowulf’s head as he fought the monsters that threatened his people – after all, you all have and will continue to have your own monsters to fight. And I hope that Grendel reminded you that some of the monsters that we fight are really beasts of our own making. I also hope that Grendel’s suffering and misery serves as a reminder that many of those who cause suffering do so because they themselves suffer, too. I also hope that the literature gives you a sense of hope. Just as easily as we can create monsters, we also can find the way to the better part of ourselves – perhaps without having to rip anyone’s arm off. I hope that through reading Tim O’Brien’s stories about Vietnam, you got to share, for a while, the many conflicting thoughts that a soldier lives. I also hope that O’Brien’s writing helped you to find some truth in the idea that many of the most important things we live are so big and important that we can only understand them through fiction and metaphor.
At the end of the year, you all selected something to read on your own. The book on the syllabus is a brilliant and great work of literature – and in its own way, I think that it tries to get at many of the truths that we experienced in other readings this year. I hope that you’ll pick it up sometime. But I also know that many of you picked up and read a book that you enjoyed – perhaps for the first time. For those of you who discovered reading as a new way to share the human condition with the characters in a story and feel what they feel, I’d like to say, “Welcome.” You’ve entered a world of limitless discovery. The more you read, the more you’ll learn about what it means to be human.
As I look back on this year, and think about what I’ve learned and tried to accomplish, I’m hopeful that you have found an opportunity, one way or another, to share in the celebration of the human condition – in all of its beauty, horror, sadness and joy, and perhaps above all, in wonder. Thank you all for giving English class a chance, for taking your own risks, and for sharing yourselves with me and with each other. I feel privileged to have been your teacher for a year.
Have a great life!