So here we are…
You’ve completed the requirements for graduation, and you’re walking out of this school with a diploma. Or maybe you’re not… but regardless of whatever hoops you have or haven’t jumped through, you’ve reached an important milestone: the end of school. You can say goodbye to childhood. For those of you who came from a different part of our planet, 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 many 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. And to those of you who have been in my classes for the past three or four years, thank you. You have taught me lessons in humility, in patience, and in life. I’m a better teacher now than I was when we began this trip together, and you are the reason why.
Before you leave, I’d like to share a few things that I think are very important. Thanks for indulging me.
- Literature Matters. It presents humanity at its worst and at its best, and it instructs us in how people feel. Literature puts us inside of someone’s soul and allows us to live, for a time, that other person’s joy and suffering. Looking back over four years, I remember discovering how cruel and evil people can be to each other in Lord of the Flies. We watched Romeo, Juliet, and Friar Lawrence all reach too high, hoping their romantic dreams could win out over the petty quarrels of intractable enemies, and we saw how easy it was for a hero like Othello to become a victim of his own self-doubt. We saw Gatsby soar to unimaginable heights of wealth and crash down to nothing when confronted with the cruel reality that he wasn’t born right. Macbeth crashed in a similar way, and for me, his loneliness — while perhaps more deserved, was no less profound or sad. We’ve seen how war can bring out unbelievable heroism and unspeakable sadness, and numbing regret, from the World War I tragedy of All Quiet on the Western Front to the lives of a 20th century platoon in Vietnam. We watched people try to do the right thing — both Antigone and Creon — and how sometimes, as hard as we try to do good things, the opposite happens. We have walked with some of the greatest heroes of all time, seeing Odysseus on his quest to return home, and Gilgamesh on his quest to discover the secret to eternal life (spoiler alert: there’s no such thing). We’ve also seen the much smaller quests of Holden Caulfield and Willy and Biff Loman and, of course, the metamorphosis of young Gregor Samsa, who are all confronted with the reality that their lives are not “epic,” and that they’ve allowed themselves to be defined by what other people think they’re worth. The theme got repeated this year in Merchant of Venice, and I hope that you noticed how difficult it can be for the wealthy outsiders (Antonio and Shylock) the wealthy insider (Portia) and for the people who try to play them all (Bassanio). We also saw, on the other hand, that even a low-life, unfeeling, selfish nihilist like Meursault can wake up and defiantly stand up for life. After all of these difficult, and often sad stories, I’m glad that we ended the year with Master Harold and the Boys. Sam suffers, but he gets to keep his dignity, and I think that Hally is bound to learn his lesson… eventually. Besides which, we already know that at least to some extent, there’s a happy ending to that story. And I believe that there will be happy endings in your futures, too. Well, there you go. Four years of English in one paragraph. Hope you enjoyed the summary! 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.
- Real life began a long time ago. I’m struck by how often I hear phrases (especially around graduation time) like “we’re going off to the real world now.” One thing that middle age has taught me is that my life now isn’t any more “real” than yours is now or than mine was 25 years ago. The choices I make now aren’t any less “real” than the ones I made when I was 19. Nobody will ever reach out with a magic wand and say, “your life is now real. Welcome to reality.” Remember this: Life’s short. For some, shorter than for others. The quicker you decide to start living it like it’s real, the more you’ll enjoy it.
- You already know what to do. At graduation time, you often hear people musing about how they don’t know what to do next. But you do. Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string. When he said that, Emerson didn’t mean that you’ll be able to look back on every choice that you made and say, with the benefit of hindsight, “Gee I nailed that one!” Rather, it means that life is a series of choices, and each choice you make will have some kind of effect on your life and on the lives of people around you. Seek out advice, do your research, use your head, and listen to your heart. Then commit to your decision. And be ready for the next one.
- Do Something Beautiful. Draw, play basketball, paint, dance, make music, cook, pitch, write. Build something. Engage your creativity and produce. By creating beauty, you make the world better. You share the best of yourself with the rest of the world, and the world needs your best. Beauty lifts us up, just as surely as ugliness brings us down.
- Seek Out Beauty. Great art won’t come to, because great art doesn’t want you to spend money that you don’t have on things you don’t need. In order to find beauty, you have to go look for it. Once you find it, though, you’ll be welcome. I hope that at some point during our time together, you’ve felt the welcome that great art gives us when we reach out to it. If you still haven’t been able to bring yourself to art, it’s never too late. But the sooner you do, the better.
- Because you’ll need it. Very seldom is the adult life painless. Wynton Marsalis explains this concept by quoting his grandmother, who told him, “Life’s got a board for every behind.” And when life’s board finds your booty, when you are knocked down and suffering, it helps to have Shakespeare, Louis Armstrong, and those other geniuses to tell you that it’s all gonna be OK.
- Now, about those choices… People sometimes ask me what it’s like to be a teacher. These days, I usually say, “I’m livin’ the dream.” Twenty five years ago, teaching was my choice, and while I sometimes grumble about making less money than any of my high school or college friends — and most of my students who have joined the working world — I also look back and see how this choice has brought my life in touch with some of the greatest ideas and thinkers in the history of the world. I see that this choice has given me the chance to share an segment of life’s journey with thousands of students. And I am hopeful that sharing those ideas and those books has helped students to lead rich lives.
As I look back on the past four years 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.
Have a great life!