June 17, 2008

My (undelivered) (okay, unwritten) graduation speech

Twenty-five years ago today (it's still on the 25th anniversary in California, though it is past midnight in Florida), I graduated from Corona del Mar High School, in Orange County, California. I wasn't at my high school graduation, because I was at the national speech tournament that year, I think in Salt Lake City. (My friend and debate partner Jeff Sklansky carried us through the district tournament, and we went to nationals three years in a row.) It tells you something about my parents that while I wasn't at my own graduation, they were. If I had attended, I probably would have been able to give a forgettable speech. But I didn't get a chance to, so I never thought seriously about what I would have said.

A quarter century later, I wonder what I would have said. And given my research interests in graduation, I've been giving some thought to what I could and should have said to an audience that included some very wealthy parents and some poor parents in a fairly schizophrenic community, and the younger siblings of my classmates. I graduated just a few months after the release of A Nation at Risk, and no high school senior would then have guessed what would happen to schools and education politics over the next few decades.

Since it's an anniversary of sorts, I'll take my best shot at it now: the graduation speech I never gave but wish I had.

Dear parents, siblings, teachers, Mr. Evans, and everyone else - on behalf of my classmates, thank you. Thank you for coming today. Thank you for being there for us so we could be here in front of you. Thank you for pushing us in the last few years when we needed pushing and backing off when it was better for us to feel and think about the pain of our mistakes. Thank you for asking the right questions, so we have your voices in our head over the next few years. We may not thank you next year, but we'll do it again in about twenty. Thank you for giving us responsibilities, so I suppose I should thank you for making us take out the garbage, both ours and the rest of the household's. It's a life lesson in shared responsibility, though I think next time I'll ask to pick the trash liner. And Mrs. Thompson, we know most of that's a metaphor, but probably not the trash liner bit.

I can tell you about the teachers I've learned from in this school, from Mr. Harvey in English to Mr. Knowlton and Ms. Painter in history, from Ms. Mook's newspaper class and Mr. Fish's Spanish classes to Mr. Vassos in physics. If there is any grace in how we write, a teacher in this school deserves credit. If we know osmosis from mitosis, either Mr. Ghere or Mr. Schnicter is the reason why. If they've made mistakes, I won't mention them today, because our teachers have shown us what to do with our mistakes, how to revise and rework and get up and dust yourself off. There is no class called persistence, but it's what they teach in high school.

But that's not just taught in school. I want to tell you about the most persistent people in my life. I am the youngest of five children, and my parents have now sat in this quad at five graduations. They have been to dozens of concerts and speech tournaments and hundreds of sports games and parent-teacher conferences. They have driven five children to all corners of this county, taken five of us to emergency rooms (though not all at the same time), comforted five children on the loss of pets and grandparents, listened to the rants and dreams of five teenagers, and raised five of us to adulthood. My father has driven to dozens of C-sections in the middle of the night and picked up the phone at all hours to give advice to parents worried because their young children are sick. If there's one thing I know from my father's job, it's that you should wait a few hours until your stomach calms down, then try Pedialite, or maybe ice chips or weak tea.

My parents have told us that our job is going to school, that knowledge is joyous, and that we were responsible for our own work. But what they said is the least part of it. They have not told us about persistence. They have lived it. And now, at least one phase of your life as parents is over. Mom, you don't have to buy any more college-ruled paper.

My parents taught us about more than persistence. My parents have shown me how to help friends and how to make them. We live in one of the most fortunate communities in the most fortunate country in the world. My parents have never forgotten that. When I was young, they took in exchange students visiting the U.S. In the last few years, they've shown me how to welcome new Americans to California. They have shown us how to look at what's not in the headlines, how to ask the uncomfortable questions. Every time that my teachers have asked me to look at things in a different way, they have reinforced my parents' lessons.

So I look at my classmates and our teachers and all of our families -- all of you -- and I think this is wonderful. And it is. You are a class with wonderful possibilities, who can do amazing things in the next few years. You are friends I have learned from and admire and always will.

But my parents and other teachers have taught me well, perhaps too well. Some of us have had a much easier path to this point than others. Remember that my parents told my brothers, sisters, and me that our job was going to school? They didn't allow us to take jobs for pay in the school year. They wanted to turn their good fortune into their children's advantage, into my advantage. That hasn't been true for everyone. This wealthy community has plenty of families who are not as fortunate. Some of us have taken jobs and worked through high school because our families had no choice. These are the classmates I admire the most, the ones who worked and then came home and finished homework late at night, or took a few minutes on their jobs to scribble in the margins of James Joyce in the break room in the back.

And there are my classmates who worked during the school year, but who didn't have to, who did so for gas money or insurance, not because parents couldn't afford the expense of a car but because that was the agreement at home. I've never argued my parents' values with my friends, because it wasn't our choice who our parents were. And high school is not so hard that a few hours of work in the week will kill your grades. But while I am the youngest in my family, there are plenty of younger siblings here, watching their brothers or sisters graduate. Let me challenge the parents here with the question my parents would ask: if your child does not have to work at a job, what do you want his or her job to be during the school year: doing homework and reading, or working as an office secretary or at a fast-food restaurant? I don't think it's the challenge just of my parents. It's the challenge that many of our teachers would raise. And it's also the challenge that college teachers will raise.

Finally, I am thinking of who is not here. Even in this fortunate community, not everyone graduates. If I close my eyes, I can see their faces. So can all of us: the students in Spanish or French classes who didn't come back after one of the summers. There is something wrong in their not being here, in our not acknowledging that this is a smaller group than we should have here today.

That may seem a somber note on which to end a graduation speech, but I think a graduation is a bit like a funeral or a bar mitzvah. There is somebody or some people whose lives you are celebrating, but it is as important for the community as for the people at the focus of the event. Taxpayers do not fund public education just for the private benefits of graduates and their families. There is a broader purpose to high school if there is any merit in public schooling, and there is something amiss when we don't acknowledge that we are not yet where we want to be.

That's true of our society, and it's also true of us as graduates. This day is a celebration of promise, but we have to work to fulfill that promise. If high school graduation is the best point of our lives, we don't have much to look forward to. But I know that Caroline and Colleen and Jeff and so many others here have a great deal to look forward to. The same must be true of public schooling. If we stop where we are here, with these graduates and no more, we have very little to look forward to from the class of 1984, or the class of 1985, or the class of 1995.

My parents told me some years ago what their parents must have told them: We wish that you grow up to know more and to do the world more good than we know or do now. That's an ambitious dream of parents, it's either a promise to me or a curse, and someday I will get my revenge on my own children. Or maybe now on everyone else here. My friends and classmates, I wish that when we see each other at reunion years in the future, you are far smarter and wiser than any of us are now. Ms. Mook, Mr. Ghere, and all the other teachers: I wish that you teach even better next year. And I wish that the graduating class next year is larger, smarter, wiser, and more accomplished than the class of 1983. I think we're pretty good now. But for both us and for our younger friends and siblings, I'd like to be able to say (with the permission of Mrs. Thompson for what's ungrammatical), "You ain't seen nothing yet!"

I'll explain more about Miriam Thompson tomorrow (or later today).

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Posted in Education policy on June 17, 2008 12:19 AM |