Category Archives: Parenting


frustratedI momentarily lost it last fall when another senior complained about reading 22 pages assigned over two nights—in 14-point font, with sections interrupted and the rest of the page blank. In I983, my first year of teaching, I asked my department chair what homework reading load was reasonable. I operated on her standard for nearly a decade, 30 pages, but since then…

People outside my profession ask me, “How do your current students compare to the first students you taught?”

Honestly, I fear the question, as who wants to be a prune-faced back-in-my-day-er howling about change most label progress? I’ve rehearsed my answer, picturing the students I teach lugging their stretched-to-bursting backpacks into class. I like them. They smile at me. They thank me. They wave hello, goodbye.

The invention of averages hasn’t done much for subtlety. If I say, on average, my students are not as good at reading and writing, then one of the sharpest of my current students appears at an imagined door. I do teach some powerful thinkers, idealists, imaginative innovators. Some revere books and commit themselves to absorbing, testing, and exploiting ideas. The rest are, as a whole, good people. I respect them and would hate offending them.

But you hear me winding up. Whether I want an answer, I have one.

Unsurprisingly, reading challenges my students most. They seem unpracticed because few circumstances in the rest of their lives expects reading, and it’s a trial to convince them patience matters, that, the more they notice and retain, the more discerning their understanding and interpretation will be. For them, nuance matters less and less. They make dramatic links between disparate ideas but aim for fireworks, not gentle brushstrokes. Skilled at the broadest thinking, they sometimes resemble bots devoted to cursory recognition. Complications, exceptions, paradoxes, and mysteries don’t interest them as much. Instructions falling between extremes tax them. They want to know what’s required.

Impatience, I think, makes a bigger difference. The issue isn’t the number of pages but the page number where they become frustrated. The particular assignment my seniors objected to was Eula Biss’ “Pain Scale,” a roaming lyric essay about Biss’ back pain that included allusions to Dante’s Inferno and the history of numbers. Quixotically, I believed they might take to its strange and dramatic leaps between different arenas of thought, but some barely reached the bottom of the first page before deciding, and later letting me know, “This is bullshit.”

Every good student is a good critic, but judgment can be peremptory, skipping knowing, understanding, interpreting, detecting authors’ aims, and formulating thoughtful responses. Obviously, I’m heavy on judgment myself—it’s in the RNA of our times—but I’d love more than a “I didn’t like it.”

Maybe pragmatism explains their perspective. They’ve been conditioned not to deviate from straight paths. Their parents urge them to fix on destinations with less help getting there. Many parents forget about encouraging joy. To recognize how limitless they might be, students need to struggle and overcome, yet, because minor dents are too costly to their reputations, every accident or setback needs immediate remediation. They hardly have time to stumble or to distinguish between stumbling and failing. They’re told they must not fail and seldom come close. Few experiences lead to the redefinition—refinement—arising from discovering where strengths and weaknesses lie.

They’re an anxious generation—of course and understandably. Yet sometimes I wonder why. Granted, we’ve given them a terrible world, but they’re also ready to tell you how much harder they have it, and each challenge can feel to them like too much on top of too much. I long for the student who asks me to be hard, who accepts struggle as fundamental to education.

None of what I’ve said diminishes my affection, but it doesn’t lessen my concern either. I generally don’t compare current students to historical ones. I know it could be my problem, my nostalgia for a past that never was. Maybe I shouldn’t speak at all, but there they are, right in front of me, every day.


Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Empathy, Essays, High School Teaching, Identity, Jeremiads, Laments, Meditations, Modern Life, Nostalgia, Opinion, Parenting, Rationalizations, Reading, Sturm und Drang, Teaching, Thoughts, Work, Worry

Your Familiar

blog_spring_shadowsAnother pseudo-story, based on a common literary motif. I’d call it a 20-minute story, but it took a little (read: a lot) longer to sort out. I’m beginning to wonder how people can be so good at writing those things… because I have longer sneezing fits.

Only in a dream could such a strange meeting take place, and that’s where this encounter between you and future-you occurred.

The sun sat at an odd angle that grazed the tabletop, its thick light hard to distinguish as morning or evening when you didn’t know where the window was. Somehow future-you seemed similar to the table’s shadows, pulled like taffy and attenuated but full and dark too. Naturally you expected future-you to be wise. You had so many questions.

Instead, for some time you and future-you communed, listlessly shifting and turning glasses, plates, and bowls as if they were pieces in a board game of subtle spaces and moves. The sun dimmed appreciably. Your eyes and future-you’s eyes marked its shrinking influence.

Future-you cleared his throat and you nearly jumped, but he had nothing to say and may have been prompting you. You locked stares, and you guessed his meaning—he envied you and wondered when this wisdom you expected left him or whether he left it on the lips of the last woman he kissed or in the swoop of letters never finished, or in everything granted, sold, given away, and lost. His doleful expression said so. He expected comforting. You didn’t anticipate that.

So you advanced your hand toward future-you’s. He drew back, then nodded.

You spoke first. Nothing you might say could be new, you figured, and so your speech rolled out in bursts like beach breakers. You can’t remember any of what you said, just that you recalled you were dreaming. Mostly you paused for interruption and hoped future-you might answer your noise with a greater and graver future voice. That would be enough.

Instead he appeared tickled, pleased to hear you fumble so. You would have mistaken his response for condescension except—of course!—future-you would react so, charmed by everything still fresh in you and spoiling in him. You matched his laughter with your own before catching a whiff of his breath and the unwelcome hints in its smell. You knew and didn’t know future-you, and he, you believed, knew you entirely.

His tears welled slowly at first and just glimmered in failing light. When you recognized his weeping, part of you wanted to console him. The other part desired more—how could you become so leaky, so riddled with age-spots, water stains, and patches of rust? How could all you wanted come to no more?

Perhaps future-you sensed confusion. He scooted his chair back and stood. You couldn’t miss his struggle. He hadn’t seemed old before, and his stoop loomed like death in the room’s near-darkness. He wasn’t angry. He held his dignity up as all he could say about you and him. And he meant to tell you he loved you. Whatever disappointment dwelt in him didn’t reach you.

Seeing that, he left and you woke.


Filed under Aging, Allegory, Ambition, Desire, Doubt, Dreaming, Empathy, Experiments, Father's Day, Fiction, Fiction writing, Grief, Identity, Kafka, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, Parables, Parenting, Play, Silence, Thoughts, Time

15 Fairly Fractured Tales

annotated-brothers-grimm-bicentennial-editionWhen my children were portable and saw me as a funnel for the world, my favorite duty was telling bedtime stories. I’m not a brilliant storyteller, but credulity inspires improvisation. I painted myself into corners to see how I might get out.

Rather than write a full post, I’m exercising those atrophied muscles in 15 single sentences from stories—beginnings, middles, and ends. Only a few are really suitable for children, but I aimed to find fanciful and promising ideas ripe for plot, not sleep:

1. The other alchemists thought it silly to try to turn gold into food.

2. What you’ve heard is true—dogs are humans’ best friends—but there was one dog whose only friends were cats.

3. At first just household objects reappeared as papier-mâché but soon whole buildings, the town, and finally its citizens became immobile and lumpy from someone’s bungled construction.

4. He dreamed the sun was a plow and so did she—when they kissed for the first time, they decided to make the dream so.

5. The soothsayer kept the bear caged but told everyone the bars marked the limits of their world and not the bear’s.

6. The tools, unwilling to touch anyone who might use their talents poorly, fled from the people who meant to wield them.

7. “Be careful,” her grandmother told her, “or you’ll end up like your father, lost in his own bedroom.”

8. Once a king decided to possess everything and soon owned all of the planet except himself.

9. Before, she had visited the priest, but that morning she decided to write her confessions on cards and hand them to strangers in the town square in front of the cathedral.

10. Another day, another habit, and soon the animals were very different from the humans, who never learned the knack of making one day echo another.

11. All his life he worked on his map—drawing landmarks guiding him out of his house, through streets, into countryside, over mountains, and into another house with another map just like the first, only dark.

12. Most people don’t know that sleep’s twin is jealous of his sister’s influence.

13. A tree shot straight out from the face of the cliff, and every year or so a villager came along to build a house in it, but the tree and the wind knew what to do and shook them off like flies.

14. “This seat,” he said, “is the judgment seat, and, if you want to know what to think about anything at all, you just need to sit down and close your eyes.”

15. Each of the library’s books contained a song, and opening their covers released the music forever.



Filed under Allegory, Dreaming, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Identity, life, Memory, Parenting, Prose Poems, Thoughts, Voice, Writing

Or What’s an Education For?

1425522-LOnce during a parent conference I found myself pulled into a dispute over an advisee’s mark in a freshman art class.

“I don’t think it’s fair they grade subjects that rely on talent,” the parent said.

Teachers know it’s unwise to contradict parents—understandably, they expect you to acknowledge their feelings, not challenge them. Still, foolishly maybe, I answered, “Every school subject calls for talent. Sometimes you’re developing skills you don’t have yet. Why should art be different?”

The parent answered, “It’s different because it’s not as important as other things.” I swallowed hard. I suggested that, since art was challenging for the student, she should spend more time working with her teacher.

The parent replied, “But it’s a waste of time… that’s just my point. She doesn’t like art, and she’ll never be good at it.”

This exchange sticks with me partly because I spent the next week developing counter-arguments:

  • People may regard art as “extra,” but the ability to think visually grows more and more essential in a post-literate world. Exposure to art seems especially relevant whether you’re good at it or not, and those who can “do some art,” have a serious leg-up in the working world.
  • What’s more, if we appreciate, value, and admire art, sustaining it relies on taking it seriously, ratifying its importance to assure its continuance. Whatever your tastes, who wants to live in a world without art?
  • Yes, receiving a high grade in art acknowledges special talent, but someone good at art deserves affirmation. Do you want to tell a student who makes an “A” in art that it doesn’t matter? Talent should count.
  • Even if art doesn’t count to everyone, students rarely like every topic they meet in school and learn even by struggling… perhaps particularly then.
  • Is the problem grades in general? What’s really in dispute is the mark. Without letter grades, students might argue less, worry less, and explore subjects that are not strengths and, hence, learn more.

If you follow this blog, you know which argument is most compelling to me. However, I have another reason for rehashing this exchange, a bigger lament, one encompassing our increasingly narrow sense of what education is for.

This spring, while trying to praise training programs in Wisconsin, President Obama joined my problematic parent in dissing art, specifically art history:

I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree—I love art history. So I don’t want to get a bunch of emails from everybody. I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.

The President’s immediate backpedaling and subsequent apology acknowledged, his vision of what’s needed from education and what’s not is ubiquitous, as is his position on education’s exclusively extrinsic purpose. He assumes all schooling must lead to “a really good living” and “a great career.” Every college degree must contribute to the economy, or else it is a failure. Lost is how education adds, intrinsically, to enjoying life and appreciating others’ talents.

As it happens, art students have transferable skills and typically find gainful employment even when they leave art behind. Supposing they didn’t, however, they still receive more than a positive feeling about their contributions to the GNP. Indeed, they may find more pleasure in creativity and aesthetic appreciation than those with really good livings and great careers and money.

Perhaps I should have said to my advisee’s parent, “If for just a moment you can put aside the mark and your resentment (which may be poisoning your daughter’s encounter with art and artists… but I wouldn’t say that) has she benefited? Can this one freshman class contribute to her larger sense of how diverse and variable learning is?”

I suspect I know the answer—you can’t convince people how to feel, after all—but I’d remember myself better if I’d been true to my own thinking.

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Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Arguments, Art, Desire, Education, Essays, Grading, High School Teaching, Humanities, Identity, Laments, Memory, Modern Life, Opinion, Parenting, Teaching, Thoughts, Visual Art, Worry

Seeing Surprises

WheIannmen my son was very young, he told me he’d drawn a dragon on his play table. They weren’t his first marks there, so I needed to know what color he’d used to find this dragon amid the commotion of his earlier flailing. He held up a green marker, the color of new moss. I saw shapes in green, unclosed boxes, drunken circles, sinuous lines attached at one end.

Then I recognized what he meant. The shape was the first real, perceptible thing he’d drawn. The dragon was there, its eyes and scales and a second color—a lurid red—fanning from its mouth. They were flames, he said. I saw that.

Next week, my son graduates from college and a similar revelation lurks—funny how individual days amount to something recognizable at last. All the evenings at the kitchen table sighing over math problems or another wacky paragraph of The American Pageant or an online physics quiz led to something too, his graduation from high school four years ago.

But that I witnessed. Now I only see college pictures—he’s dressed up, standing with friends at a party, or hidden in sunglasses attending some sunny celebration. I don’t see him work or study, don’t experience the marks of knowledge and understanding amassing and something forming in the mess.

Over the phone, he sometimes tells me about a class, paper, or lecture but usually impatiently, always assuming—rightly—my limited comprehension. I like to think he believes me capable of understanding, but I’d have to be there to truly get it. Not being there sometimes seems the central quality of our new relationship, and, of course, I miss him.

And, thinking about his graduation is a little like realizing every mark on his play table is one unnoted image. When children are born, no one says you’ll discover they’re strangers. No one mentions the alien things they do and make and think on their own, quite apart from anything you give experientially or genetically. No one says they will surprise you or that, ultimately, it’s all surprise, a cascade of shock starting with the first identifiable word.

I know my son is anxious about what’s next, and in these times I don’t blame him. His mom and I are nervous too, but mostly we’re proud, happy to accept whatever credit people want to give us for who he’s become, but well aware he’s responsible. His voracious curiosity began the moment he opened his eyes and has hardly paused since. He and his sister are the brilliant lights of our lives.

Once he learned to speak he talked all day, from the moment he woke to the moment he slipped into sleep mid-sentence. Like any parent I still see that little boy when I look at him in tie or tux, but I also know everything he’s made himself. I’m sure he worries it isn’t enough, and some employer will ask for more. I hope he can put his apprehension aside and pause to celebrate his accomplishment. My wife and I care less about what others might want from him and more about what he wants, his continuing desire to learn and do and play and work and feel.

We are in awe of our beautiful stranger.


Filed under Aging, Ambition, Anxiety, Art, College Admissions, Desire, Education, Epiphany, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Identity, life, Love, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Parenting, Play, Resolutions, Thoughts, Tributes, Visual Art

Thursday Haibun (Episode One)

basho-loc-01518vI learned this week that I missed NaHaiWriMo (Haiku a Day Writing Month), which was March. But, no matter, I write a haiku a day anyway, and I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) with extra vigor, writing haiku and prose in haibun. I also cheated by starting early—I’m on spring break right now and won’t be next week—and so I’m writing more than one haibun a day.

As promised, I’m posting them on Thursdays during April. These are today’s output. I’ve kept the numbers assigned to them.


Some rains keep the world dark all day, and some people appreciate steady half-light, steady pelting, steady captivity. I enjoy rain too if life waits. On days I’m happy to rest, I stand at my window, watch the lake form at a nearby intersection, and study people leaping it as if in a steeplechase or, like ants blocked by a finger, weave left and right seeking the proper place to ford the more-than-puddle before them. It’s just a puddle to me… or will be until the clock demands departure, need calls, or some summons insists. Then I learn all this time my study has been practical, teaching me how to enter the unwanted, to bear it instead of looking from afar.

sitting in a bath

I listen to the faucet’s

persistent tears


In fourth grade, when I returned from Christmas vacation, Molly’s desk sat empty. I wasn’t surprised because she missed so much school, and, when she was there, she skipped music and art and recess to fill worksheets she hadn’t seen yet. Molly’s skin was as near translucent as I could imagine, blue networks visible just beneath the surface—every visible surface—and her blonde hair grew thin like grass in poisoned soil. She didn’t look at me much, and we hardly ever spoke, but I knew her eyes even when I closed mine. They said surrender. Their pale and weary blue slid from the sky, too tired to stay aloft.

chalk dust

on the blackboard’s edges,

ghosts on the border

I was sitting in my desk as Mrs. Mitchell gathered Molly’s things—a few books, some supplies, but nothing that said Molly really, nothing like the eccentric mess under everyone else’s desktop. When Mrs. Mitchell told the class Molly died before New Year’s Eve, some people already knew and a few cried or fought tears. I must not have believed it. The whole day seemed temporary to me, every worksheet another Molly would have to do.

beyond curtains,

outside the window, you see

air stirring


 last night, a cheer rose

from many neighbors’ houses—

I don’t know why

In any alphabetical list I’m almost always the middle. I like to count how many precede and follow me, happy when it’s even.


On the first day of a Shakespeare class I asked the students why they were there. One of them answered, “Because he’s famous.” I’d heard that response before, of course, but never so baldly put.

My daughter was in kindergarten that year, and, on the drive home, I asked her, “Honey, do you know who Shakespeare is?”

“He wears pumpkin pants,” she said.


the newspaper still holds

its curl


When I can’t sleep, I look for morning’s signs—the first defined shadows, a car sweeping by, a word uttered on the sidewalk in front of our house. The alarm often comes first.

in skyscrapers

half a mile away, checkered lights

of company


Filed under Aesthetics, Ambition, Basho, Buddhism, Desire, Doubt, Education, Epiphany, Grief, Haibun, Haiku, Home Life, Identity, Insomnia, Laments, life, Meditations, Memory, NaPoWriMo, Parenting, Play, Poetry, Prose Poems, Survival, Thoughts, Urban Life, Voice, Writing

What He Was

ku-xlargeOkay, so this is an strange little story. I found an odd entry on Wikipedia and decided to crawl inside it…

Like any delusion, it was borderless and stretched from a single moment to subsume reality. He couldn’t say when he became glass, only when he discovered he’d always been.

Glass has different, sharper angles, and he’d always felt them. Only recently, however, had he begun to fear, worrying a bone might erupt from his thigh at sitting or standing too quickly. He didn’t picture his glass skeleton as you might think, like sticks of pure ice or crystal. Instead he felt gray inside, every piece jagged, poured or shaped with tongs instead of blown and stretched from fiery blobs. His parts would never refract light but absorb it, mixed as they were with ash and air. Their dull translucence came closer to brittle metal than prisms.

They might splinter at turning or lifting his hand to eat, and he sometimes wished they would. He wanted proof. Every time he tried to explain the truth only he knew, his father’s impatience glowed a little whiter. He threatened his son with beatings fit to remind him how different flesh and glass are. His father said he meant one day to cure him of pillows, of clockwork caution, of resignation, of paralysis. If his father’s blow came without warning, he’d be happier, as the surprise would save him from shattering when he braced himself.

His mother preferred reason, cooing reassurance. He couldn’t be glass, she said, because she’d carried him and would’ve sensed it. She told him how he’d slipped from inside her, more rubber than glass, and how, bathing him, she’d wondered at his rounded knees and elbows, his head like an unpicked gourd. He couldn’t convince himself nearly as easily as she could convince herself and wouldn’t bear her trying to touch him or come near him.

The doctor blamed his schooling, pressures he couldn’t bear and so made real and physical. The priest said he needed to place God before himself, that his illness arose from self regard replacing faith he’d abandoned. His friends stopped thinking of him, and there was no woman to love a glass man.

The days spent in bed stretched forward and backward, and he dreamt of a stream that might run harmlessly around him, washing away clay that wasn’t glass and revealing him as only he saw he truly was. He wanted to be seen. He wanted to be known at last.


Filed under Allegory, Anxiety, Depression, Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Identity, Kafka, Laments, Metaphor, Parables, Parenting, Prose Poems, Solitude, Sturm und Drang, Surrealism, Thoughts, Worry

Strange Seas

???????????????????????????????I hardly have time to write. I’m waiting to board a flight to Philadelphia where, tomorrow, my wife and I will say goodbye to our daughter as she starts her freshman year in college. As our twenty-one year old son is starting his senior year, soon we’ll be empty-nesters.

Lest you think I’m spending these final moments with my daughter writing about it, she’s with my wife taking advantage of tax-free shopping in Delaware. They left this morning.

I’m not very good at these events. From a panoramic view, they look huge. Standing next to them, they fool you by blending into the immediate landscape. You can’t be sure exactly where you are. And no one is pausing here but me. I didn’t fly out earlier because school started yesterday, and I didn’t want to seem unprofessional by taking such early personal days. Teaching two classes today was, of course, unnecessary—my colleagues would cover for me—but I like handling these milestones with nonchalance. I mean to keep calm. God forbid anyone think I’m asking for special treatment.

But my daughter deserves special treatment. The summer before college is strange. Through June, July, and especially August, my daughter sailed a sea that looked calm but hid strong currents. She felt independent and wasn’t yet, quite. My wife and I were not quite off the job either. We didn’t stop worrying during her absences, her long stretches of cellphone silence, her late returns, her conflicted expressions of indifference then affection then indifference again. She grabbed for the last bit of this or that with friends. At times, her behavior was maddening. Understandably, she’s grateful her hurry-up-and-wait will end soon. While I’ll miss my daughter terribly, I’m happy too because this confusing time will end for all of us.

Three years ago, when I bid farewell to my son, he gave me a brusque hug and said, “Bye. Thanks for the last 18 years. You’ve done a good job with me, and I’m grateful. Don’t worry.” He didn’t really look back after that, and, I realized immediately—but not before then—I shouldn’t have expected more. As a parent, you engineer your obsolescence. Given the challenges of raising a child, no parent should be blamed for looking forward to freedom. Yet, being needed is sweet too, and, where a child’s gaze aims ever forward, a parent’s aims ever back. You see the child, even when you look into a young adult’s face.

So, for the next 24 hours, I’ll define mixed emotion, swinging between impatience and neediness, between celebrating my daughter’s accomplishments (and the wonderful young woman she’s become) and somehow wanting just a little more of her. I want all her attention for one last time.

I’ll keep it together. I’ll pretend it’s no big deal. All the complications of moving and settling in may make the whole occasion seem a purely practical matter anyway. My daughter may want to keep her parents pragmatic, may want it over and Mom and Dad gone because what’s next is her focus. I completely understand—I remember even—but, as her future opens up before her, I wonder what I’m standing next to.


Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, Home Life, Hope, Identity, life, Parenting, Thoughts, Worry

Coming Home

il_fullxfull.436891681_gdroHere’s the second 20-minute story I wrote during a writing workshop in Ohio. Though I have no great gift for fiction, I’d recommend this exercise to anyone interested in stretching their skills. Something about being in the crucible of the moment makes you focus on the essential elements of a narrative.

Mom wore an expression I recognized—the wary one she once showed strangers who dared to approach me in a playground or anyone who asked for “a moment of her time”—and she gripped Dad’s arm just above the elbow.

“May we help you?” Dad asked.

I moved to gather the backpack and duffle bag I’d dropped to ring the bell, and they stood squarely in the doorframe.

“How’re you guys? I had a break in the semester and—“

Sometimes you look into a different face when you deliver news it didn’t know or when you disprove facts it’s repeated confidently for years.

My parents’ faces steeled.

“Excuse me?” Dad said. My mother pulled herself closer to him. “Do we know you?”

“Jesus, Dad!”

They blocked my way as if I were our cat, instinctively and with a mind to try as many times as necessary. I should have visited sooner, but school work rose like walls before me. I’d just found time to see my way through.

“Look,” I said, “I’m sorry. I should have called, but—”

“I don’t know you, but if you try to come in here, we’re calling the cops!”

Sometime, my mother left him, retreating into the house, and her flight alerted me to all that was altered. The table in the entry hall was Pennsylvania Dutch instead of sleek Danish, adorned with a plastic bouquet in a teapot instead of three gray paper flowers in a glass vase.


I might have stood there longer, implored longer, insisted whatever prank should end, but my mother returned wielding a handgun and shouting for me to leave.


Filed under Doubt, Experiments, Fiction, Fiction writing, Gratitude, Home Life, Identity, Memory, Metaphor, Parenting, Writing

Real Talk

DSCN7536“Graduates, thank you for the honor of asking me to speak today.”

Nearly every address begins with some variation on that statement, and, often, speakers joke what a dubious honor—slash—anxious burden the invitation is.

If I were speaking (I’m not) I’d sidestep the cliché and say,

“Thanks… I mean it.”

However, given my late-May exhaustion, it’d likely be the last sidestepping I’d do. I might remind graduates to double-space their papers and put the punctuation inside the quotation marks. I might threaten them with another year of high school if they can’t recite, “’I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’” and seven exceptions.

Though teachers stand in front of classes every day, opportunities for uninterrupted public commentary are rare. It makes news when graduation speakers succumb to the temptation to critique the current generation, but I understand. One sign of love, after all, is sincerity. Students should want honesty. They’re a captive audience—what better time to say, “Yes, you’re wonderful, but…”?

When I was a young parent, I attended a number of junior versions of graduation with kindergarteners or lower schoolers or camp attendees or participants in a rainbow of other activities. These graduation parodies are cute—like making a dog wear a snood and sunglasses. Yet, sometimes, so are our solemn and serious commencements. The elevation of the occasion insists on congratulatory platitudes and sugared inspiration, and graduation slips into bombast or, worse, announces its artifice by stepping gingerly around realities.

How courageous then are people who can mine their own post-grad experience to speak plainly about students’ future. “Life will be dull and only an active mind will relieve it” they say, or “If you really want to succeed, don’t believe your own press,” or “Everyone says you are the hope for the future and barely mean it, but, sorry, it’s true. Don’t screw up.”

Three times I’ve stood at that podium and said something less than I might have. I could have offered subtler, more insightful advice, confessed more doubt, and grappled more vigorously with the troublesome inevitability of disappointment.

So I’ve written the speech I never will (and never would) deliver:

Graduates, it’s an honor to speak today. Thank you… I mean it. I’m humbled standing here, overwhelmed by your faith I have a valuable message to impart. I’m not so sure, however, and this address will be shorter than you imagined. It requires attention perhaps impossible on such an exciting day. Nonetheless, here I go.

You should be proud of the accomplishment we’re celebrating today… but don’t be too proud. Ambition and personal progress aren’t everything. Watching you these four years has inspired hope… but also frustration. Sometimes I worry you don’t see this beautiful world as clearly as you should, and that, if you don’t lift your eyes from screens and start looking soon, you may spend a lifetime wandering among the clutter of possessions, degrees, school names, and job titles you laud as life’s treasure. I worry you may look up from amusements and discover the world spoiled… or gone.

I’ve heard you use the expression “Being real.” In our time, nothing is harder. I’ve lost my way enough to believe landmarks proffered by society are unreliable. Marketers advertise days like this as milestones when, really, your ordinary hours count more. With every petty triumph and mishap you fashion the internal compass to guide you. You are your habits.

My colleagues and I have such deep hopes for you. You may have cursed us at times, but our affection explains why we’ve asked so much of you. We wanted to teach you to think, and some of you have learned well. Others act the part, swinging between doing what looks good and what’s sincere and earnest. That’s okay. I act too. We have to sometimes, and, in dark moments, everyone wonders what’s real and true.

Everything real and meaningful to me started with asking, “What matters?” I’ve occasionally wanted to hand you the list I’ve compiled, but you will create your own.

I request  just one more thing before you leave. Make your list deliberately and thoughtfully and with the highest purpose. The world doesn’t need more lazy opinion, more pretense, more snarky irony, more secret contempt, more misanthropy, more hollow love or name-only friendship. It doesn’t need more aloofness, more consumption for consumption’s sake, more self-absorption or self-congratulation.

It needs us awake and alive, grateful and caring, modest and sensitive. It needs real attention, affection, and aspiration. Graduates, what’s ahead isn’t easy, but, if you lift your head and open your eyes, I promise life will be more glorious than you can imagine even on this, a most glorious day.

I know one of our graduates really well—my daughter. I’m sure she’s happy I won’t be troubling her class with my worries. And I’m happy to leave the day to her… generally. I feel only the slightest twinge of regret, the usual fed-up end-of-the-year urge to issue one last challenge.

But instead I’ll just say, “Godspeed, all.”


Filed under Ambition, Criticism, Doubt, Education, Essays, Experiments, Gratitude, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Modern Life, Parenting, Teaching, Thoughts, Voice, Work