It’s graduation season, when young people leaving high school or college are forced to listen to notable speakers give them advice. Those fidgety students probably don’t hear much, and who can blame them. They are more concerned about not tripping on the stage than Taking the Road Less Traveled.
No matter. Most of those graduates already have learned in school what they need to know to succeed. I’m not talking about the academic course work they mastered or the career plan they have mapped out. I’m talking about character and citizenship – traits too many people abandon as adults.
I’m a teacher, not a notable speaker, but here’s what I’d say to the graduates – and more importantly, to the adults who need a refresher – if I had the chance.
Leave everything better than you found it. School is all about improvement, you and everything around you. You went from knowing little to knowing a great deal while you were in school. You helped your classmates ace a project and spurred your team to the finals.
The contributions of past students – an engraved silver punchbowl from the Class of 1955 still in use at the prom, a statue of the school mascot on the front lawn – are reminders that everyone who passes here leaves a mark.
Adults forget this. We deny the toll we take on the earth. We mortgage the future of our children in order to live expansive lives now. We go for days and weeks and sometimes even a lifetime without learning anything new. We bisect the world into Us and Them and harm our communities with judgment instead of justice.
Keep a servant heart. Once you were a frightened freshman lost in the halls of your new school, miserable until an older student pointed you in the direction of your classroom or offered you a seat at the lunch table. Later, you were the one reaching out to the new kid on the team or the club or the council.
“I’ll show you the way,” you said, and you did.
Continue to be kind and offer genuine friendship to the lonely fellow traveler. Call out the bullies and give witness to compassion. Model the inclusiveness you seek. Keep opening your heart and our eyes to those with no voice of their own.
Take that commitment with you as you head into a world that sharpens plowshares into swords, that wields words like weapons.
Be better than the adults who have forgotten the lessons of school – the value of diverse viewpoints, the strength in working together, the need to honor the past while accepting change. Remind us what good students know – that listening is the skill to master first.
Make wisdom your long game. More than any success you can measure, wisdom should be your goal as you gain experience. Look at the adults who, like Shakespeare’s King Lear, grew old without growing wise. Practice reason and logic and empathy until they are second nature to you. Be a skeptic about all things – people’s motives, untested outcomes, your own assertions.
Be humble about your successes and grateful for your failures. Your best teachers were your hardest, most exacting ones, and you learned to accept their critiques and applause with grace and humility.
Never stop being a student, willing to learn and change, even when doing so is hard. Remember Socrates’ great lesson that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and then go out and really live.
Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.