May 30, 2007

We Are All Both Teachers and Students Forever

Last Friday night, I attended the eighth grade dinner. This is an end of the year event to celebrate the students who are "graduating" from middle school. I was asked to give a speech, and while I felt a bit lukewarm about it as I was writing, it has gotten some decent feedback, so I thought I would share it. Many people have told me that even as adults they needed to hear what I had to say. I know I try and remind myself of these things everyday. So without further ado, here is the speech I gave to forty-six of my students and their parents last Friday night:

I will be thirty-three next month, and looking back at my life, I think that I can still honestly say that the eighth grade was and still is the worst year of my life. I remember it as a series of agonizing days wallowing in insecurity, doubt, fear, and general disgust with everyone in my life. I had no idea who I was, who I was supposed to be, or any clue as to who I was meant to turn to for answers. My teachers were ancient and out of touch, my parents were clueless on the most basic things, like why if I didn’t have the new Nike Airflight shoes, I couldn’t possibly show up to school the next day. My friends, sorry my friend, yes I only had one friend was just as confused as I was, and he was little help. I remember hating the days when he wasn’t at school, because I didn’t know what to do at lunchtime. Yes ladies and gentleman, I was a geek; I was a loser; I didn’t fit in. I looked at the cool kids with disgust, and I hated myself more because I wanted them to like me, even though I didn’t know why I needed their approval. Like I said eighth grade was a bad year.

I wish I could stand up here and tell you that it gets easier when you grow up. I wish I could tell you that you will figure it all out when you are an adult. I wish I could tell you that the day you turn eighteen and graduate from high school, everything will suddenly make sense and you will live happily ever after. I wish I could tell you all that, but I can’t. I can tell you however that you are not alone and that being confused is no big deal. I wish that when I was in eighth grade someone would have taken me seriously enough to treat me like a young man and not a child and would have told me to relax. I wish people would have realized that I needed guidance and wisdom, not threats and rewards.

Before you get all full of yourselves, and I get into trouble with your parents for inciting an open rebellion, let me tell you that you have a long road in front of you. Like I said, it doesn’t get much easier. You will need help. but it is okay because there are people to help you. Look around…your friends are a good start. Your parents and teachers, although we may not appear to understand anything about you or your life- we have been there. That is the advantage we have over you. We have been both teenagers and adults, as of now not one of you can say that. And because we have played both roles, along the way we have learned a few things, and we want to share them with you. Why you may ask? Because we love you. Here is a list of random observations that have helped me. I hope they will help you:
  1. Be kind. Be generous. Smile often.
  2. Always ask questions. Lots of them. Of everyone. Never assume anything and always do the research. There is no such thing as truth. There is only what you discover, what you can prove.
  3. Never fully believe in only one thing. Always see it from different perspectives. Challenge your own opinions with their opposites.
  4. Everything you do has a consequence and effect on something in the universe. Learn how to find out what these consequences are and try to make them positive. Everything is interconnected. You are not separate. You are not alone. We are all here together.
  5. Have fun. Fun is a state of mind. Find something to enjoy in everything you do. Don’t whine, complain, or give up.
  6. Success and failure are arbitrary terms. It is not the product that is important but the process.
  7. You don’t need to be rich or thin or famous or pretty or buffed. You simply need to be your self.
  8. Human beings, our environment, and life will always be more important than business, money, or governments.
As most of you know from class, I could go on and on. But I will stop there. Those should keep you busy for a while. I am still working on the first one.

None of what I have said here tonight should be new to you. These are all things I have tried to teach you everyday in our classroom. These are the things I have tried to show you through my own behavior. Please do not judge me if I have failed to do these things, because as I mentioned earlier i am figuring it as i go too. Adults do not have all of the answers. As a matter of fact we have far fewer than you would think. Everyday we get up and try to make the world a more bearable place to live. Why do we do this? Why should we care you may ask? I don’t know. I do it, I guess, because the alternative has never made much sense to me.

In closing, I want to thank all of my students for being great teachers. Your talents, dedication, and hard work have been beyond inspirational to me. You have helped me become a better teacher, a better writer, a better artist, and a better person, and for that I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I could not do what I do without you. Remember that it is only in school where we play the role of teacher and student, in reality we are all both teachers and students forever.

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