What I learned from my students this year

I'm hopeful because students are speaking out.
I'm hopeful because students are speaking out.

The last assignment I give my high school seniors each year is an essay asking them to reflect on what they have learned in my class.

I’m surprised — pleasantly so — at how seriously they take their responses.

They talk about the lessons that excited them, the discussions that stayed with them, the literature they will carry with them.

They mention being more comfortable as readers and writers and thinkers. Mostly, they say, they have learned how to be a member of a community — how to listen and value each other’s points of views, how to question their own beliefs, how to balance enthusiasm with civility.

As my students work on their reflection essays, I write letters to them. Turnabout is fair play, after all, and I want them to know what I have seen this year — how much they’ve grown, what they’ve contributed to the class, what the future holds.

We’ve been on this odyssey together, I tell them. Now they are ready to launch into their own.

As my students and I wrote about the year, the students at Santa Fe High in Texas were being terrorized by a shooter.

It was at least the 15th shooting at a K-12 school in 2018, the 15th time thoughts and prayers have been offered up, the 15th time nothing of substance has been done to make American school children safe. Even as the statistics rolled in — American high schoolers are 82 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than their peers in the developed world, for instance — gun advocates geared up to blame doors, trench coats, video games, abortion.

And so it goes.

You have a bright future, I wrote to my students who live in a world where the quality of water and air are being compromised by an Environmental Protection Agency that values profits for businesses over the health of our children.

Keep working hard, I wrote to students whose representatives debate cutting children’s health insurance programs and making financial assistance to struggling families less available.

Thank you for all you did to make the classroom a welcoming place, I wrote to a student whose father was arrested by ICE the week before.

My students have come of age in a country that tells them, in word and deed, that they do not really matter. My students see how self-interest drives adults, how a lack of empathy drives policy. The people who should be their role models are liars and cheats. The people who should be looking out for their welfare are looking the other way.

Our young people are the lawyers and farmers and waiters in our future, the doctors and teachers and mechanics that will make our country great, or not. I’m hopeful about this generation, not because the adults are stepping up, but because the students are speaking out. Students like the Parkland kids who organized March for Our Lives, or the students in Utah who drafted a bipartisan resolution acknowledging climate change.

They remind us that when we support public education, affordable and accessible health care, a living wage for workers, humane immigration policies, sensible gun laws, and active engagement with the rest of the world, we honor the promise we make to children when we bring them into this world.

McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: