I am a teacher, and tonight – the night before school starts back – the honest to goodness truth is that right now I could not care less about how much English literature my students learn from me this year.
After an encounter today with someone who just wasn’t very nice, it occurred to me that I would rather every student fail the End of Course exam if, in exchange, they could learn to be good people who do everything in their power to make this world better. I know far too many well-educated people who only make this world more difficult for others and leave hurt in their wake. What good is it to know lots of information if you don’t know how to love?
Tonight, my lessons are planned and tomorrow I will teach English, but I will fail as a person and disciple of Jesus if I forget what really matters. So students, this is what I really want you to know.
I want you to know that what you do and say to others really matters. I can remember something unkind said to me over 20 years ago, and I still have a scar from the wounds of his words. You may think you’re being funny, but to the butt of your joke, it’s not a laugh. It’s a wound. And some wounds never heal.
I want you to be responsible for the choices that you make. I lose patience when you won’t bring a pencil to class, but it’s not just about the pencil. It’s about your choice to waste an education that people in the same world as you don’t have the chance to receive. Yours is free. Don’t take it for granted.
I want you to know that you must take time to chill. Yes, education is important, but so is enjoying life. I agonized as a student over every single point, and I nearly had an ulcer before graduation. Life wasn’t fun for me then, and at the end of the day, I was miserable. Don’t be like me.
I want you not to be a victim. Yes, your life at home may be a nightmare. You might come to school without a pencil because there is no one who cares enough to buy you one. Life is hard, and you deserve some help. But you cannot use the hardship as an excuse not to succeed. Work harder than everyone else and you will have a life unlike everyone else. You play a role in the future you will live.
I want you to be kind. To everyone. I know that girl may dress funny and use too-big words, and I get it that that guy just moved here from somewhere strange. But they – like you – need a friend and a place to sit at lunch. Do you want to eat by yourself? Of course not. So don’t let anyone else have to sit alone.
I want you to know that I’m here for you. Stop laughing. I really am. I could make way more money and get far more respect doing something else. (For the record, just in the past week I was called a “glorified baby-sitter” among some other choice names. Some people think teaching is a joke.) I’m hard on you because I know you can do better, and I ride your case because I’m imagining something great for you. If I start to get on your nerves, which is almost guaranteed, try to remember that I see something in you that you haven’t seen in yourself yet.
I want you to know that I want great things for you, but greatness doesn’t always include a college education or a six figure salary. Greatness means giving of yourself and loving on others. What is your passion? What makes you feel alive? Do that! Others may think you’ve lost your mind and are wasting your talents, but if you feel you’re supposed to, then do. I will be your greatest cheerleader.
I want you to read great books. And here’s the catch no English teacher wants to admit… What is great to you might be horrible to me. And that’s ok. Reading takes you where you can’t always go yourself, and it teaches you what you didn’t know you didn’t know. Yesterday a book took me to South Sudan where children were kidnapped and forced to become soldiers. The book wasn’t – and won’t become – a classic, and it’s not on any approved reading list. Who cares? Read what you like and toss what you don’t. Life’s too short to read terrible books.
I want you to learn who you are. You’ll experiment, and you’ll learn in stages. But don’t pretend and don’t force it. You were made a certain way and for a certain reason. Do everything in your power to discover who and what that is.
I want so much for you, and so little of it has to do with my class. I want you to truly live, not just exist, and I want you to thrive in your own unique way. I want you to feel joy and to bring it to others. I want you, 30 years from now, to know that you are doing exactly what you are meant to do. I want you to be a great you – even if you don’t make an A in my class.