Friday, April 29, 2011

Work: The graduation speech I won't ever give

There is just over a month until graduation, and I stand before the students in my English 12 class gushing about the I-Search paper, our department-wide senior project.  You come up with your own question --about anything you want to know!  You tell your own story about where you looked for answers and what you found!  This paper is about you!  I'm selling it, but they aren't buying.

Because I really like every one of the 24 students in that class, I find all the lethargy and apathy, the heads resting on desks and fingers texting below desks, endearing rather than maddening.  My fondness for them may also explain why this year more than any other I've thought about my own senior year.

One vivid memory from those dwindling days is of sitting in my English class with an open copy of Light in August on my desk. It was just after lunch and the windows were open, the lights were dimmed, a mower hummed outside. Our desks were arranged in a circle that wrapped from where my teacher stood at his lecturn.  He rattled off analysis, and I mechanically entered into the margins gems like JC=Jesus Christ. 

When I sat down later to write my essay, all those notations may as well have been in Aramaic because, though years later I would strain to remember all my teacher had shared in order to pass it on to my own students, I hadn't really been in that classroom.  My head was gone from that place; it dwelled in the uncertainty of my prom plans, the dread I felt at the final pathetic death throes of my first serious relationship, the anxiety that oozed from my ridiculous need to keep secret my weekend job at McDonald's.  But mostly, I had moved on to college, which I just knew would be the answer to everything.

My students have moved on, too, but had I caught them back in January when they were still wholly present, I might have told them a couple things I learned when I was in their place. 

First, I could have told them that as much as they saw graduation as an escape, they would never fully leave here because this place would never fully leave them.  Despite the 10-hour drive, leaving home put no distance between me and the insecure high school girl who'd worried what her friends would think when her father pulled into the school parking lot seemingly jammed with Mercedes and picked her up in his rusted Ford Escort.  Yet, from my vantage point 500 miles away I was for the first time able to see that my parents' sweat and sacrifice was at least as responsible for my success as my note-taking and paperwriting and I cherish that to this day.

I could also have told my students not to cling too tightly to that mental image of college they've been chasing for the last four years. That day in English class I imagined college to be a beer-soaked bacchanal, and every weekend when I worked my secret job at McDonald's I'd bare the sighs and eye rolls of unappreciative customers by surreptitiously crushing their burgers as I bagged them and muttering under my breath Someday I will buy and sell you. 

In the end college was both so much less and so much more than I could have predicted.  There was, of course, beer, enough for a freshman 20, for a sagging GPA, and some situations dangerous enough to make me consider homeschooling my own girls for college. Truthfully, all that partying was a lot of fun at times, yet I know that in my dogged pursuit of the college experience promised me in movies and on tv I missed out on a lot of actual experiences.  And I never did end up buying or selling anybody; instead I met the man I would marry, convinced him to follow his heart and teach history to high schoolers instead of marching grimly into the world of business, and --to the surprise of the girl who zoned out in English-- decided that my own best fit was in the classroom.

Be open to anything, I could have told them, but make sure that you hold on to something.  Even as I write this, it sounds familiar, and it's possible that someone said it to me back then.  There was no shortage of advice.  My teachers, my parents, other people's parents, old men on scholarship boards, I recall them all telling me things that I could clearly see they considered very important.  I smiled politely, nodded gravely and listened to not one word, and for the same reason my students could care less about the I-Search: I already had the answer.

Even if I could break through my students' pre-graduation haze and force them to take heed, I wouldn't.  Right now, they all have the answer.

I really like them, and I want them to be able to enjoy that feeling for the few months it lasts.


  1. Its amazing that some of the best experiences in college were not the ones we expected in college.

  2. Wow, Sarah. Great post. And holy crap, the iSearch paper!

  3. Thanks! And is that holy crap good or holy crap bad?

  4. Holy crap, as in...they still do that?! Day-um.