When Thornton-Donovan School’s librarian and yearbook moderator asked me to write this year’s Words for My Seniors, I initially thought it was a burden. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was an honor to provide some useful guidance to the Class of 2018. I also needed to leave both my silent and vocal resentments of the school at the door and realize that had nothing to do with the kids. They deserve better, so here is the original, uncut version:
This song by Khalid came on the radio when I was driving up to Thornton-Donovan School at my usual seven a.m. start. And the chorus really took me: “Yeah, we’re just young, dumb, and broke…But we still got love to give.” I thought at the time that there was something profound in its simplicity, for it so adequately describes high schoolers.
Looking at Khalid’s use of “dumb,” I believe his diction conveys that kids are ignorant of their world at first. That’s to be expected, though. As I always tell my students, they sometimes do stupid things like copy a peer’s homework or not put the requisite effort into an assignment or even say something inappropriate for attention. And that’s completely fine; it’s a product of growing up. This process of making mistakes and learning from them is how we turn knowledge into understanding inside and outside of the classroom, assuming they have the proper guidance at home and at school. After all, it is our eternal fallibility that humanizes us.
Quite cliché it would be if I instructed the graduating class not to fear failure because, to use a sports analogy, “you miss 100 percent of the shots you do not take.” No, instead what I will say is don’t be afraid to communicate and seek assistance. There is a certain pride you might take in independently solving problems, but that is not always the reality. In the real world, whether that be in college or in your career, you must uncover solutions using your resources. Asking for help is not a crutch, but rather the means to satisfy the requirements of a challenging task. Work together with those whose skills are superior to yours, those who have useful and applicable knowledge to impart on you. If you do not evolve, you will become extinct figuratively – struggle/fail, literally. It’s as simple as that.
At the same time, do not ever discount the importance of your own initiative. Your ability to look between the lines, question existing structures, and demand better will distinguish you from your peers. Don’t wait for someone else to act on your behalf; instead, rise and do it yourself. You will find out – if you have not already – that you and you alone dictate your own futures, for better or worse. Do not squander the opportunity to pursue what fulfills you. And be ready for chance when it comes.
I think oftentimes it’s easy for adults to lose their sense of empathy when it comes to kids. They seem to get stuck in the past, recalling how education or even life used to be – the “good ‘ol days.” Even teachers whose job it is to relate to children and put them in the best position to succeed somehow manage to forget the pressures and process of growing up. Understand, though, that there is something to be learned from every teacher, every person with whom you interact. Never lose sight of teachable moments in your own lives that offer pause for reflection. We can all grow and improve no matter how old or stuck in our ways we become. But you have to make that choice.
Children, though, have as much to teach us adults as we have to teach them. This particular senior class, many of whom I’ve had the privilege of teaching in middle school or interacting with over the years, is the perfect example. I saw Cecile McIntosh in 6th grade change the way I thought a grammar lesson could be taught by creating an original show tune and dance number to show the differences between commonly confused words. In witnessing Muxi Zhang’s progression from a fledgling language learner with limited English proficiency to an articulate, mainstreamed young woman, I gleaned more effective strategies for teaching international students. Amber Corbett, meanwhile, offered me an entirely new perspective on the fashion industry by showing me that beauty, intelligence, and civic activism were not mutually exclusive characterizations. Finally, Michael Stack impressed upon me that if I expanded my assessment measures beyond strictly a child’s writing, I would come to see that the child understands far more than I initially thought.
There are innumerable stories I can recall involving the senior class, but the common thread among them is that they pushed me in a lot of ways to become a better teacher – really, a better person. They made me see that there is a place for positive reinforcement in education. And they reminded me that, as Khalid sang, “We still got love to give.”
Keep showing love to those around you, and never lose that quality. Your acceptance, understanding, and support of those who might not adhere to societal norms is what distinguishes your generation. It’s what makes you the leaders of tomorrow I know you all can be.