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Thursday, June 16, 2011

What's Missing From The Inspirational Graduation Speech?

                         Hint: It begins with an "I"


   Did you know that Abraham Lincoln failed a lot before he became president and got a chance to fight for what he believed in? Sure he did. And even if the guest speaker at the graduation I sat through yesterday hadn't told me, I was well-informed of Lincoln's travails, and furthermore, I would be surprised to hear that anyone who succeeded didn't struggle (truth be told: I'd be disappointed).

Before wishing them the best in whatever they pursue, she took a moment to look behind her at the gowned class and "imagined" the future "astronauts, presidents and scientists." (Imagine: the same moderately achieving middle school class produced more than one U.S. President? Man, Phillips Exeter can't boast the same!).

While yawning, stretching and trying to come alive, I thought it was time that I took a preemptive strike, here goes: These graduation speeches are really cynical.

For one, I know that she said they could do "anything" but really, she repeated the old standard occupations (notice, she didn't say "landscaper"?); we get it: wink, wink.

Several years back, incoming Harvard Freshmen were asked what they hoped to be after graduation.

Investment banker was the number one reply. Overwhelmingly so.

But interesting: most of those who declared that their future goal didn't know what it entailed.

"How could you want to do it if you don't know what it is?" Those conducting the inquest asked.
Simply: they knew it was successful.

The interviewers suggested that the replies indicated a disturbing trend: the most talented, educated and adaptable students were not open-minded to an education that may bring them to foreign ideas. This was bad for society, they said, but also for individuals who were swayed by the lofty rather than something they were passionate about. Though...

I'd say they were passionate, as were the stars of yesterday's graduating class encouraged to be: passionate about success.

What else is this but blind ambition? And more: it's a safe bet, not for a good life, but an approved life.

Haven't some of the most successful people and inventive minds found themselves at times lost? Haven't many successful people stumbled into unexpected and newly born opportunity while muddling through their hard-fought losses?

Why if it is bad for Harvard students, many of whom stand a great chance of fulfilling the dream, would it be good for inner-city middle schoolers? If the Harvard students' pursuit reveals, in actuality, a crushing of dreams, why would it mean anything good to those less enfranchised?


Having sat through quite a few those commencement addresses, I am yet to hear listed as future profession "teacher." Nor have I seen posted on hallway walls any starry thoughts about becoming a teacher (police and fire fighters, yes, maybe long ago, but now that dies out around second grade).

The foremost problem in teaching being passed over for "higher achievement" is that it undermines the ability to influence them: "Who are you to tell me?", "What have you done?" or "Those who can't..." the students says.

Okay, before we talk of its other merits, simply: It's a good, solid job...

 Why on Earth wouldn't I suggest to a student that being a teacher, which has allowed me to provide well for my family, wouldn't be good enough for others, particularly those who come from homes that have traditionally struggled?

There is an elitist notion here borne out of academic do-goodery that encouraging the strugglers to become astronauts will cure their issues of poverty. Again, elitist, but, as well, shockingly naive: The average teacher at my school, with a Masters' degree, earns more than sixty thousand a year. Boston Police Officers frequently average in excess of one hundred thousand. Firefighters, etc...

Fair representation in well-paying service jobs is a given and a necessity for creating a socio-economically healthy communtiy.

When the average household in these communties barely teeters above the poverty line, how could you have any misgiving about doing what we can to encourage those fit for it to pursue a career that pays up to three or four times the national average?

The urban student finds himself in the same position as the chosen child of a poor family: in the family, the child is told to achieve beyond their parents, and in the school, the student to go beyond the teacher.

In both situations, it first creates a bratty child. In the long run, the child, set off on a blind run to outdo their parents and teachers, is set up for a disillusionment that Polly Eisendrath-Young refers to as "The Self-Esteem Trap."

In the book of the same name, Eisendrath-Young, a Jungian analyst, depicts many of her patients, though many are quite "successful," as marked by characteristic "restless dissatisfaction" and depression created by the  burden of "pressures to be exceptional."

The root cause, she feels, is that ours is a culture that tells every child that they are destined for greatness and genius.

While Eisendrath-Young clearly relishes reminding us that we are not great and should not purue greatness ( though, she feels quite comfortable, as the school's advisor, in telling Norwich University ROTC candidates that they are destined for military battle), she provides a valuable counter-view to "you can do anything" spiel fed to kids daily.

The chosen child focused only on "success" is not well equipped to cope with the natural ebb and flow, big and small undulating of living.

What the book should punch is: even if you achieve great things, there is a downtime. Not every moment of your life is great, and these "insignificant" moments are the core of your life and happiness.

It is possible for a teacher to play in a band, write, dance, compete in martial arts (as is done by my colleagues) where they can have their moments.

A life of both service and personal development? Man, I can see why the guest speakers would want to side-step that!

Teachers refusing to mention their own profession as a viable option, while undermining themselves and their colleagues, fails to provide a needed model of a daily worker. It reinforces what E-Y says has made us such an unhappy bunch- we are told that working a good job, providing a service at reasonable pay is nothing to shoot for.

The reigning mantra amongst teachers is "it's all about the kids." Wrong. It's interrelative. How could a teacher be impassioned in their instruction if they weren't tied to it, if it wasn't about them, too?

Yes, you are serving, but you're not serving time.

Being well-educated and skilled is what we're trying to encourage our students to be , how isn't the average teacher a fulfillment of what any school would hope for its student?

Perhaps it is the influence of teachers schooled at the elite institutions who saw their classmates go on to conquer the world of finance and inherited an inferiority complex (despite the "If I can affect the life of one child..." claims)? Or maybe it's those who view teaching solely (or most impressively) as an opportunity to be a savior, and again, like the over-burdening parent, live vicariously through the child?

In the children's book, the idyllic shot of Main Street and its neighborhood school presents a steady flow of activity- buses arriving with happy students, crossing guards waving kids along and teachers smiling as they teach kids in formation. Everybody happy that they have a job to do. That is the imagined vision of a functional community.

It is also true.

Encouraging students to approach life as a joy and success as gravy on top of the pride of living a good life is far less cynical than the subtextual suggestion that they failed if they didn't pursue a career whose title looks best on a business card.

When a guest speaker comes to our school- a pro athlete, a police detective, a private school admissions director- the children are all ears, as they hope their success will rub off on them.

Can you imagine how much more attentive students might be in a daily way if they were told being a teacher was something to shoot for? (Not to mention how much more respectful, polite and well-behaved?)


After his re-election as Massachusetts Governor, Deval Patrick nominated Roderick Ireland as the state's Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

In interviews, Ireland waggishly recalled  his Junior High guidance counselor steering him towards the trades.


Within this inspiring story of an African-American's outstanding achievement is some rather pedestrian snobbery.

Are we all supposed to shrug knowingly at the suggestion of "the trades"? Need any of us be reminded of how well tradesmen do in Massachusetts? How much property they acquire? How many have gone on to run corporations, get degrees and influence public policy? That having a trade doesn't necessarily stop you from going to college or becoming a lawyer?

While there is no question that it is long overdue that African-Americans find their place in politics, law, the sciences, it is a betrayal to thumb our nose at the skilled trades and the self-suffiencey that they could bring to less-priveleged communities.

It's unfortunate that Ireland made example of the guidance...I am fearful that other guidance counselors will shy away from making that suggestion at the risk of being accused of crushing someone's dream.

Ireland didn't know that he wanted to be a lawyer. What is wrong with encouraging a student to arm themselves with a profitable skill while they "find themselves"?

Kissinger had worked at his family's cigar store as he toiled through night school.

Bukowski was a mailman. Faulkner a postmaster. Raymond Carver taught. And so has been the route of some of the most creative and productive minds.

I met the cousin of a very successful screenwriter who told me that the man was a "bum" before he sold his script. Turns out, the bum had traveled, taught English in several countries, learned a few languages, wrote a novel that didn't sell, etc.

Wow, what a slacker!

My speech is short: Never stop working towards your goals and, in the meanwhile, live intelligently.

David Mamet's to theater hopefuls was: "Speak up. Tell the truth. And think well of yourself while learning to do it better."

Yes. And it is a lot easier to think well of yourself AND work towards goals with a little change in your pocket.

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