To My Graduating Students*

*and to my students who graduated last year – I’m sorry I didn’t think to do this for you then, so now everybody’s included in this commencement address.

First: I am so proud of you.

Second: I don’t know where this blog post is going, so just hang out for a couple of minutes. It might meander like our discussions on Of Mice and Men or The Cask of Amontillado.

Whether you go to a four-year college, a junior college, a technical school, or no school at all, you will be making choices every single day. Sometimes these choices won’t be important, like, “Do I ask the dude making my sandwich to put mayo on both sides, or just one?” or “Do I straighten my hair today or let it go curly?” or “Do I call my girlfriend now or wait until after I finish this episode of [whatever show is popular at the moment]?”

Sometimes the choices will be very important, like, “Do I blow off writing this paper and just copy it from the internet?” [If you were truly a student of mine, this answer would be, “No, I will write this paper and learn while I’m doing it!”] Other important choices might be, “Do I get into the car with this dude I just met at the club?” or “Do I sample the mystery substance everyone seems to be having so much fun with at the party, or do I amuse myself taking photos of them to post on Facebook later, and make sure none of them die from whatever side effects the mystery substance has?”

The point is: the future is filled with choices, and you are responsible for making the choices. It might be overwhelming, as it often was to me in college. The sheer mountain of choices scared the crap out of me. And sometimes you’re going to shine, and other times you’re going to fail. You will fail. It will happen. (I think J. K. Rowling covered this point in her address to Harvard graduates in 2008. Click here to read that.)

Failing can bring you to surprising new places. It can be an opportunity. I’m not saying it doesn’t suck, because it does. But take some responsibility for it. You get to make the choices, from here until forever.

I hope you choose:

  • to not get into the car with strange men
  • to make wise choices about sex
  • to pass on the drugs but still have fun with your friends
  • to work your asses off on school work. You’re choosing, paying to be in school now. No one’s making you. Work for your dreams.
  • to always be kind and gentle with every single person you meet. Even if they cut you off in traffic or steal your umbrella or cheat on you or sit on your iPhone and crush it into a million bits
  • to surround yourselves with people who make you smile
  • to remember your home. Your home. Full of people who care about you and are cheering for you. This is where you come from, and even if it might seem like a small nothing town after you’ve moved away to Way Cool City Full of Beautiful People, this is your home, and we love you
  • to write letters and postcards – not only emails and texts – to your friends and family
  • to reward yourself with a trip to the beach or a hike or somewhere outdoors when the daily grind gets to be too much
  • to vote for leaders you believe in
  • to form relationships¬† with surprising and interesting people
  • to put your money on what’s really important. Think about where you want your life to go; spend accordingly
  • to fall in love
  • to let people go when it is time (and to trust your instincts of when that time is right)
  • to avoid worrying about what other people might think of your path in life. It’s yours; own it and be happy. If you can’t be happy, change it by making new choices
  • to learn and practice the art of making conversation with adults. You are an adult now. Talk to your professors, your bosses, and other adults
  • to be the change you wish to see in the world (Mahatma Gandhi)

I love you all. If you think I’ve forgotten about you for one day since I quit teaching to raise Z, you’re wrong. I taught you English, but you taught me so much more. I delight in memories of being your teacher. I delight in the choices you make, especially when those choices are conscious, purposeful, and full of intent to make your lives, and the world, delightful, fanciful, creative, kind, gentle, and peaceful.

Thank you for being who you are. Never stop.

How Teaching High School Prepared Me for Parenthood…

…and how it didn’t.

Now that Z has hit the magical age of TWO, my life has moved from the Fast Lane to the Super Fast Lane…with nightly visits to the Family Bed (Of Pain) [more on the Family Bed (Of Pain) in a future post]. Yet occasionally in the Super Fast Lane, we take a naptime break from mach speeds and I am able to reflect.

Recent reflection: Parenting a toddler is a lot like managing a classroom. No, I am not saying ninth graders are just like toddlers. Okay, maybe a little. But since all of my ninth graders have graduated or are now seniors, this list shouldn’t compromise any egos.

1. Routines! Kids of all ages thrive on routines. My ninth graders had a Daily Starter, something other teachers call “bell work”…it’s a short activity to keep students occupied while you take role, take a breath, and buckle up your seatbelt for the hour ahead. Z’s daily starter is a snack prepared by Daddy while Mommy lies in bed and growls at the cruel cruel world. (No, I am not a morning person.)

People like to know what’s coming next. Leave surprises for birthday parties, and keep your kids clued in by doing daily things in the same order every time. I cannot stress how important this has been for bedtime. Cannot. Stress. How important. For bedtime. The simpler the better, and we’re working on that.

2. Transitions. This is something I never quite “got” as a teacher. I guess some people like more warning than, “Hey! Put those papers away, it’s time to move on! Move it move it move it!” As a mom, though, it makes more sense. “Z, you have two more minutes of swimming time, and then we’re going inside to do something really fun, like wash the dishes!” And my daughter, bless her, cheers wildly because she LOVES doing the dishes. By the time I pause to wonder where she got this particular freaky genetic aberration, I’m sure it will have faded away.

3. Short Breaks. Those five-minute passing period breaks we got? Old students of mine, count yourselves lucky. Maybe it’s fine when you’re young to have an entourage every time you step into the bathroom. Me, I like the door firmly closed between myself and any other persons, yet most days Z and her “friends” walk right in. Sometimes she makes comments, which I will not share here.

4. Rewards and Praise. Every single person appreciates rewards and praise. Praise is inexpensive, but don’t give it away for free, or it will seem cheap. Stickers got me a long way on the Great Potty Training Experiment of 2010, but after awhile they lost their luster. And their stick.

5. Workload. I could write pages about how underpaid public school teachers are. They work so hard, earn so little…We all know this. Why isn’t it changing?

6. Kids can tell when you don’t know what the H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks you’re doing. Now, the younger they are, the easier it is for you to pretend. But if they’re older, and they sense doubt, weakness? They go for the kill. I think substitute teachers have one of the worst jobs on the planet. I’m shuddering as I type this.

7. Inexplicable Temporary Deafness.

Teacher: Okay, class, your paper is due on Friday. When’s the paper due?
Class: Friday!
Teacher: Say it again.
Class: Friday!
Friday comes. Sixteen kids “forgot” the paper was due Friday.

Compare to:

Ever-Suffering Mother: Z. Z? Z! Stop playing with that. Bring it to mama. Do it now. What did I just say?
Z: Stop playing with that.
ESM: Yet what are you doing?
Z: Playing.
ESM: Yes, with that. Now stop.
Z: [does not stop playing with that.]

8. You are an example. Ah, how I hate this one. Wouldn’t it be grand if I could just let loose with a string of swear words every time some…poo-poo brain cuts me off on the road? But the truth is, as soon as I signed that teaching contract, and as soon as that baby was born – boom. I am now a person that another little person watches. All the time. And in the classroom it might be worse. Watched by many. If I had the good fortune of their attention.

There are differences between teaching and parenting as well. As a high school teacher, I got to go home at the end of the day. Maybe not always as early as I would have liked. Maybe I never felt like I was leaving my work behind me (often I was indeed carrying it along in the form of essays to grade).

Looking back from where I’m standing now (which is next to the potty while my child sits and sits and sits and sits), the most important difference was that my high schoolers did not ask me to wipe their bottoms. They went through Very Important Do-Not-Ever-Lose-These Handouts as if they were toilet paper, though.