My Actual Message to Actual Graduates: Be Good

Now that I cleared my pipes yesterday with the vent against students who give teachers everywhere heartburn, I can speak with lowered blood pressure and say something perhaps a bit more productive, a bit less offensive, something that might uplift rather than tear down.

This being my first year teaching seniors, in other words my first time being a teacher at the moment when these future humans leave primary schooling behind and go on to do and be whatever they are going to do and be, the gravity of my profession feels a little bit heavier.  I see now in a much more inescapable way just what sort of effect teachers can have on students and, by the same token, what effects students can have on their teachers.  Let’s get one thing clear: I’m not that teacher that’s going to bust a tear at his students’ graduation.  Those teachers are out there, but that ain’t me, and I’m not apologizing for it.  No, even though I will miss <em>some</em> of my students, I am happy to see <em>all</em> of them go, because for some of them they’re past ready to leave the foolishness of high school behind, and for others, high school is past ready for them to move on.  One of my colleagues has a fantastic poster in her room which sums it up nicely: “All students in this class bring happiness.  Some by arriving, others by leaving.”

So you’re graduating.  That’s fantastic.  The parade of seniors past my door the past week or so has felt neverending, and to be honest, I wasn’t (and still am not) sure I’m the kind of teacher who would make an impact in the lives of my students.  Nevertheless, I’ve had several students tell me they loved my class, and even had more than a handful who’ve told me I was their favorite teacher.  Some of that may just be the emotions talking, the great fear bursting from their chests as they roll toward the abyss separating high school from the real world, but it feels good regardless.  While I’ve tried to have some words for each student individually to send them on their way, I’ve said the same two words to every student, and I want to share my reasons for doing so.

“Be good.”

It’s not exactly poetry, and it’s not exactly profound.  But it is something universal that I want for all of my students; yes, even the one I addressed yesterday.

“Be good.”  It’s a funny thing for me to say, because in my classes, I discourage the use of “good” as a modifier.  I don’t accept “It was good” or “he was good” or any other variant because it tells you nothing.  The word “good” is like premixed cement: it’s got the basics of something but by itself it’s effectively worthless.  There are near countless gradations of meaning in the word good, and hundreds of different ways to say what you mean which tell your audience more than the word “good.”

But.  (There is always a but.)  It’s that premixed meaning I’m after, here.  My students — the class of 2014 — are going off into more fields and into more futures than I can conceive of.  College, military, dad’s business, setting off across the country with no safety net — they are doing it all.  And I hope that they do it well.  They don’t have to be the best.  There is no “best.”  But there is always “good,” and I hope that they will strive for it, whatever it means in whatever path they’ve chosen.

There’s also the moral significance of the word: “good” in contrast, of course, to “evil.”  Like light and darkness, as part of the solution or part of the problem, there is a “good”ness or a “bad”ness in everything we do.  And in that sense, I hope my students are good as well; I hope that they are forces for good in the world and that they don’t contribute to the evil in the world any more than they absolutely must.

Finally, of course there’s that verb, “Be”, present tense, imperative.  It’s a command, but more than that, it’s a wish and a hope, for now and for the future.  To be something is not to pretend, to consider, to dream about some far off goal.  It means becoming it, right now, this instant.

So, to the future humans, the graduating class of 2014:

Be Good.

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