Today I’m wearing black. Normally, I’m a person of bright colors and lots of laughter. But today my students are graduating, so today I’m wearing black.
As a high school teacher, one of the joys of my job is watching my students grow into adults. For a rare few it happens on Day 1 of their freshman year. These individuals take charge of their future, finding a balance between the study and social side of school life, and embark upon the path to graduation with concentrated diligence.
OK, I hear you laughing all across the state of Washington and beyond. I admit that most of our students don’t have that focus or discipline. I hate to admit that a core of our young people stumble and struggle their way through our classes—despite the best intentions of our teachers and counselors. They arrive at graduation in June almost despite themselves.
But they do arrive. Whatever path they followed to reach the day of graduation—with all their i’s dotted and t’s crossed—dressed up in their mortar board and gown signaling that their K-12 school career is over—they’ve arrived. The sparkle in their eyes reminds us of their hope and passion for new challenges and opportunities, whether it’s college, a job, travel, or just uncertainty. The adult world beckons, and they have arrived.
My seniors ARE ready to go, but I have so much more to teach them. Time is so precious and short, so I want to teach these students my final lesson.
So what final words of wisdom can I give them before they step up to receive their diplomas? These are my final thoughts for my last lesson before they go out to embrace their life.
1. Looking after No. 1 doesn’t mean you are the center of the world.
Doing what’s best for you should not be at the expense of others. When your employer hands you a paycheck, thank them. And be sure you have done more than expected to earn it. Give a little extra and be proud of the work you’ve contributed.
When it comes time to leave for greener pastures, do so graciously. Say thank you for the opportunity. You never know when a positive reference from your past endeavors will help you advance in a new direction. Always be known for being nice. Cruelty, meanness, and negativity will never help you.
2. When you have a chance to make the world a better place. Do it.
There are 7.4 billion people in the world, and 323 million of them are in the United States. So many times I hear the words “One person can’t make a difference so why do anything?” Wrong! Ignore those daunting numbers. Remember this simple saying, “Think globally, act locally.” It’s more than a bumper sticker slogan. Everyone can change their part of the world for the better by contributing positive ideas and energy. Not just by doing what you are told, but by doing more than you are asked. Never give up and persevere despite the naysayers who are slow to embrace your ideas. Your world is what you make it! You are the change. Go for it!
3. Do the right thing when no one is looking.
We all want to be recognized for what we have done, and if someone sees and commends you, fine, but expect nothing. Robert Fulghum’s “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” says it better than any text written by a professional educator. “Play fair. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess.” He also exhorts people to “share everything.” That includes praise when things go well. In the 19th century a writer first penned the words, “There is no limit to what a man can do if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” Be quick to praise others and share the glory. It doesn’t really matter who did what. What matters is that something positive got done.
4. Remember the people who got you there.
Who helped you achieve your goals? Thank them. Parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, and school support staff have all played a role in your success. As you march down that aisle to the sound of the band playing Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance,” don’t limit your reflection on just your accomplishment of earning a diploma through your hardwork and effort. Remember the people who support you and helped get you to this moment. Say thank you. Email and texts are common methods of communication; but they are easily ignored in the shrill, almost overwhelming clutter of today’s modern communications. Phone calls make thank-you messages more personal; the human voice conveys tone and emotion. But a personal moment to present a card or letter, with flowers or a small gift, tops them all.
5. Be prepared for change.
Change is the only constant. Stay flexible. When most of your parents were teenagers, the Internet and mobile “Smart” phones were in their early stages of development; no one really suspected their wide-ranging impacts. Those inventions won’t be the last to transform society; more are being dreamed up as we speak. So embrace new technology, learn to separate fads from trends, and use whatever comes next as tools to make your part of the world a better place. But remember, human to human contact is still the most important and most rewarding form of communication. Talking to others is essential for lasting growth and peace.
Yes, I’m wearing black today as I watch my seniors move on to the next stage in their lives. But I’ll quickly shed my black attire and remember as a teacher, the delight when graduating students sign notes in my copy of the yearbook. I treasure these tokens. I’ll remember with even bigger delight when former students return years later as adults, sometimes cradling children of their own. And they say, “Thank you for being my teacher. Without you, I . . .”
I hope they’ll remember my last lesson and live a full and complete life. That is why I teach.