I really loved my students.
I loved teaching high school English – diving into stories and dictionaries, dissecting words and meaning, helping students understand messages and create their own – but what I loved more was building relationships with students and helping them grow and learn.
I loved being part of their lives at a small school where I taught every student in ninth-grade and then many of them again in English 12 or my electives. I loved the great conversations that only happen in a “silent” study hall. I loved seeing them in the (only) hallway and greeting them, helping them have a little bit brighter day, even when neither of us felt up to it. I loved encouraging them to try something new, to try again, and to focus on improvement instead of accomplishment. I gave a lot of encouragingly cushy grades on public speaking because I firmly believed that most people know how to do it but are too uncomfortable and afraid to let themselves do it well. I loved thinking about things anew through their questions and discoveries.
I didn’t always live up to my teaching philosophy, and there were certainly times when I made a mistake or got frustrated. On our class wall was a quotation from the band Tenth Avenue North, and there were times I needed their grace more than they needed mine:
“You are more than the choices that you make,
You are more than the sum of your past mistakes,
You are more than the problems you create.”
Leaving teaching was hard, but leaving my students was heartbreaking. Twice at the end of the year, the same poor kid stumbled onto me crying about leaving them. I have missed them very much this past year, so I have enjoyed keeping up with them through Facebook (hi, guys!).
Last month, one of my colleagues called with the news that the seniors had selected me to give their commencement address.
With one more chance to talk to them, I had the worst
writer’s speaker’s block I’ve felt in years. What was most important to tell them? And it can only be three to five minutes long? In the end, what seemed most helpful was the importance of choosing optimism, of having the courage to remain hopeful that efforts will lead to better outcomes than cynicism. It didn’t occur to me until after giving the speech Saturday how much I needed to hear it, how much that theme reflected teaching, our family’s move to missionary service, and the very nature of missionary service and the gospel. All of those (and life itself) inherently take optimism and hope, pursued with courage, determination and faith.
Even a year after leaving the classroom, these kids are still teaching me, and I love that, too. Thank you, Romulus Central School Class of 2014.
For those who would like to read it, here is the speech (as written, not quite as delivered):
Hello, everyone. Students, congratulations, and thank you for inviting me to help you celebrate today. I’ve really missed you guys, and I’m very honored to be here today.
When I heard you’d picked me, I wondered if you were just trying to get even for all those deadlines I gave you, whether you were curious if I could ever speak for only five minutes, or whether you just hoped I’d bring you bacon. Well, the speech is done, it seems to be the right length, and as for the bacon…
Reach under your seats.
You share this day with many others who have helped you get here: your parents, your teachers, your friends, and even your siblings. Countless others have helped you, encouraged you, inspired you, and challenged you. Make sure you thank them, and make sure you notice how brightly their eyes shine with pride and affection for you today.
You have traveled so far together. You and your classmates have shared the same lessons and teachers, the same rooms and hallways, the same struggles and victories. And you are here today celebrating your accomplishments, eager for the challenges ahead.
And there will be challenges. Whether you enter the military, find a job, or go to college, you will find that life offers opportunities, but they are usually surrounded by work. Be driven. Choose to do the hard thing, to embrace challenge and struggle, to apply yourself no matter how easy or simple something may appear to be. Remember all that goes into making a pop bottle, all the people whose knowledge and talents were involved in creating even something as commonplace as that.
Regardless of whether your work or studies are easy or hard, you will go further if you push beyond what is merely expected and instead opt for what requires more effort. People may be impressed by natural talent, but they generally admire hard work more.
There is much of luck and circumstance in life, but there is also much that you can direct and control. So be mindful of your options. Be deliberate in your choices. What you bring into your mind will shape your thoughts. Your thoughts will shape your choices, your choices your actions, your actions your habits, and your habits your character. Together, these will shape your future, for better or worse.
As Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure: think about such things.”
Choose today who you will be tomorrow.
Choose to remain optimistic. Optimism often gets mocked in our society. Being cynical seems smarter, funnier, edgier, cooler, but it’s not. Cynicism is easy and feeds off of others. Cynicism is an attitude or comment or act expressing scornful negativity from a person’s own bitterness. It is aggressive, parasitic, and toxic.
Optimism requires hope, and hope requires bravery. To maintain optimism – to maintain hope, to look forward to something being better – is hard. To be optimistic requires intelligence, courage, and discipline; it is not a mindless self-delusion. Optimism is the faith that things can get better and that each of us can help them do so.
So find the courage to remain optimistic. Find the strength to hold onto hope to face your challenges and to do the hard work that will sometimes seem overwhelming. Success will not come without effort, and effort is hard to maintain when we feel hopeless.
When you get where you’re going, be sure to seek out good role models: experienced, older people who can guide you through what you are just encountering, who can offer the wisdom of their experience and help you make the best of the opportunities.
Be careful, though, not to latch onto cynics; you do not want your own struggles, challenges and failures to be made heavier by another’s disappointments and frustrations about their own. Seek a positive role model, someone who will encourage you, and think about what that word means – to encourage means to put courage into someone. A good mentor can infuse you with the courage that you might not feel yourself.
It’s so easy to be cynical. It’s so easy to mock someone else’s ideas or to decide in advance that an idea won’t work, but nothing good has ever been created by a negative thought. Cynicism may get laughs, but optimism is the real driving force in the world.
So embrace your adventures, push yourself, stay positive.
And make room for the important things, like bacon.