To my students in the class of 2013:
Congratulations! You have just about finished your high school careers. Your airplane has landed, and we’re on the runway, making the taxi to the terminal. You may turn on your electronic devices now!
Actually, I’m kidding… I can’t tell you that. I know that you already had them on, anyway.
And I also know that some of you are likely to peek at your phone at some point during this little talk. Even though it’s totally riveting. But I hope that you’ll pay more attention to me as I give this speech than you give to the flight attendant at the end of the trip… especially when I say DO NOT STAND UP UNTIL THE PLANE HAS COME TO A COMPLETE STOP AND THE SEATBELT SIGN HAS BEEN TURNED OFF.
Yes, we’re almost done. But don’t get up and open the overhead bins just yet. I won’t, since I’ll be staying on this plane for a bit longer than you. Nevertheless, your imminent graduation presents an opportunity for me to reflect a bit on my own experience this year. I hope that you’ll find my observations relevant to your own lives.
As you may remember, this year I finished my 20th year as a full-time educator. During your lifetimes, I have learned a lot about teaching, and like you, I feel that this last year has represented a kind of graduation for me. For the past four years, I’ve tried to focus lessons on your knowledge — on helping you to discover and share things about literature an language. That’s a big shift from where I started — which was focusing on sharing MY knowledge with students. And while I don’t think that I’ve become truly effective yet, I do believe that I managed to keep my focus on you, rather than on myself.
This year is also a bit different for me, because the classes have large numbers of students who don’t have English as their native language. 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. 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. I hope that in English class, you have shared some of the joy that I get from knowing things. I also hope that other classes have done the same for you. 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. I hope that over the year you have felt some of the joy that I find in reading great literature. As I look back on the year, there are a few moments that shine for me, as I remember conversations with a few of you, where you have shown me that you’ve felt Olivia’s confusion, or Malvolio’s misery — where you have been shocked by the sadness of Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam experiences or puzzled through Albee’s social criticism. If you didn’t, well, I hope that some day you’ll give literature another chance. I also hope that this class offered something to those of you who didn’t feel the direct benefits of the books.
My biggest hope for each of you is that you see yourself as a contributor — as a person with something valuable to share with the rest of the world. That’s why I set aside a lot of time for you to develop your blogs, and that’s also why I’ve tried to build a lot of activities that asked you to work together in groups. Ultimately, I hope that as you move on — as you deplane from this leg of life’s journey — you take with you a sense of possibility, as well as a sense of responsibility. You have the ability to learn, to accomplish, and to share with others. As you continue on your journey, you’ll be expected to put that ability to good use. So make sure that you check around your seats for any personal potential that you may have forgotten about — You’ll definitely need it wherever you’re going.
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!
Creating a climate of possibilities – I am all for it. Good thoughts in that speech.
Davod Foster Wallace: I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.