I’ve been teaching high school for almost a decade. I have aged dramatically in those ten years, while my clientele spring freshly formed from the fountain of youth year after year. While they move on, crossing the stage each June, I fear I may never graduate from high school. It may be my destiny to eke out my professional years awash in a sea of bad spelling and hormones. It is my dream to one day be allowed to address the graduating class. An honor I have never been granted. I don’t know why…
Put your cell phones away, please.
I’m not the boss of you?
Well… yes. Yes, you’re right. I am not the boss of you. You are now, finally, the boss of yourself. It’s been eighteen long years in the making, but finally you have achieved that which your parents and elementary school teachers despaired of… you are finished with the public education system.
You’re still texting.
Order us all a pizza will you? No? You’re texting the girl two rows behind you to see if she’s gonna drive you to the party, because your parents grounded you and won’t let you have the car because you got 55% on your Chemistry exam?
Sucks to be you.
Ok. You’re right, a graduation speech isn’t meant to mock the graduates. It’s supposed to inspire and motivate and celebrate. I just can’t help myself with the phone thing. And don’t get me going on the eye rolling… I saw that! Yeah you, five seats in, fifth row back. What if your face freezes like that, eh? Not pretty, I’m tellin’ ya.
I know what you’re thinking. If you could invent an interactive t-shirt that would update automatically with each facebook status, yours would say: “When’s the bell?” I did a course evaluation with my English 11 students, and 40% of them responded that my ability to connect the curriculum to their real, every day, actual lives was “fair to poor”.
What? So Shakespeare didn’t have facebook… does this make him irrelevant?
I thought I was doing a good job at relating to the Youth of Today… once, I even started that video of ‘The Assumption Song’ because you guys told me it was totally school appropriate…you lying little beasts…
And there was that time we watched that video of the pooping cat.
And what about that time we talked about that poem you all loved, ‘If I have a daughter’, and I told you about my daughter and the sunflowers on the roof, and you all agreed that your mothers would have killed you if you did that? Didn’t we have some moments of inter-generational bonding?
My Love lives on the banks of a tidal river where seals swim up from the ocean chasing schools of fish in the spring. We often watch whole herds of seals cavorting, leaping, splashing, thrashing around in the water, doing what they do best. But quite often, all we see are the ripples. We know the seals are there, under the water, and every now and then a glistening head will break the surface, then submerge, and we can track their progress up the river by the wake they create, without ever actually seeing them.
Teaching high school is like that.
There’s a lot going on under the surface that I never see.
How bored were you, really? When I showed you videos about the shifting paradigm of education, were you really checking facebook on your cell phone? When I had you interview each other to create character descriptions, were you really talking about the most recent level you conquered on C.O.D? When we dissected discrimination and privilege and shrugged off our invisible knapsacks to see what was inside, were you really thinking about the girl in Global who wrote “Nova Scoita” on the map? When I insisted you learn the difference between ‘then’ and ‘than’ did you really think I was just doing it to entertain myself?
But here we are, you in your graduation gowns and me wishing I had made my lessons more relevant, more real, more in tune with who you really are, and what you really need. I wish I understood what those things are… what do you need, to succeed as young people in a world so full of distractions and entertainment and information? I see your faces bobbing gently on the surface, but the river you are swimming in is murky with the hidden truths of your lives, and all I can offer you as a flotation device is good spelling.
Let me tell you a wee story.
Yes. I know. I’ve told you stories in class, when I thought I was highlighting something important, and you thought I was senility personified, but here we go again. Bear with me. Feel free to text that guy who got your number from some girl you met at a party and now he is wondering if you wanna sit in his truck in town for six hours tonight. That’s important. You’d best answer him.
The first musical I was in was Camelot, about fifteen years ago. I had never sung a solo in my life. My entire singing career teetered on a delicate balance between “Jesus loves me” sung with my Sunday School kids, and “Aiken Drum” with my little Sparks girls. I was cast as Guinevere, with the reassurance that I “wouldn’t have to sing much”.
At each rehearsal, instead of getting better I became progressively more and more shrill. Each high note was tortured and mangled in such a way that stray dogs would gather outside the theater at rehearsal time and howl in unison every time I opened my mouth.
Opening night was approaching. A cast of thirty people were depending on me. My vocal cords were a cross between Barry Gibb and Wolfman Jack.
(Ok. Sorry. You don’t know who they are. How about a nasty interbreeding of Lady Gaga, Curt Cobain and Stewie Griffen? Delicate dulcet tones.)
I was ready to pack it in, give up, reboot, message not sent, delete, block, unfriend… get it?
The stage manager came up to me and asked what my problem was.
This would be the equivalent of one your friends texting you: “Wazzzup, ho?”
I told her I was really bad, and scared, and there was no way I was good enough to be Guinevere, or even on stage, and I was really sorry but I thought I should just quietly go home and knit socks for the rest of my life.
Her response to me has motivated me past many obstacles in my life since then.
“You are not the best. You are not the best singer, best actress, best performer. You are not the best Guinevere ever to grace the stage. But you have enough. They cast you in this role because you have enough of what they were looking for to be good at it. Now get the f*** over yourself and go sing that song.”
It worked for me. In my terror over trying to be the best, I overlooked whatever small qualities I had that had been enough to get to me to where I was at that moment.
I got the f*** over myself, and I sang, and I had a really good time.
The newspaper review of that performance said something like: “Libby Broadbent, as Guinevere, was very tall and elegant.”
Ok. Yeah. I worked really, really hard on the tall part.
The point is, darling graduates of 2012, you have enough. Life is full of fierce competition and disappointments and trials and tribulations, but you have enough of whatever it is that you need to get you to where you need to be. You have made it through high school, with courses that may have bored you, may not have met your expectations, may not have spoken to your inner passion, but you have enough of whatever you are taking away from those experiences to set you on your path to your future. You have navigated the rushing waters of your teenage years and triumphed with a diploma in your hand, despite your teacher’s best efforts to bore you to death.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I have enjoyed you. I can’t tell you how much you have aggravated me. I can’t tell you how much I worry for your futures. But you have perseverance, and an uncanny ability to sleep with your eyes open. You yawned your way through years of academic torture, and while some of you are driving super-sonic speedboats up the river, and some of you are bouncing step by step off the bottom, you will be fine. Mind the big rocks. Lift your feet off the bottom and let the current take you. You all have enough.
And we have had enough of you.
So get the f*** over yourselves and go forth and be the brilliant young people you are destined to be!
To all the graduating classes of 2012, congratulations!
Finalist in WFNS Atlantic Writing Competition
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