To the ancient Greeks, teaching and learning were treated as privileges and considered nearly sacred. To later smart folks like Leonardo da Vinci and Hedy Lamarr, they remained nearly divine and yet still delightful, things they pursued throughout their lives, as natural and necessary as breathing. In contrast, although it is filled with dedicated, inspired teachers and students, our modern “education system” (an oxymoron if there ever was one), sadly remains less about a way of life than about documenting the credentials for making a living. So, I’ve reconciled myself with having said and done all that I could say and do within the education system, and have enjoyed moving on to life and learning’s next chapter. Yet, I remain happily unfulfilled in teaching and learning because I am so grateful for how much those things have meant in my life and in the lives of those I love. And just as the songwriter in me could never write just one love song, there are times when there is one more compelling thing to teach, one last review to offer. And this morning, I find it comes in an inspired marriage of philosophy, love...and grammar.
Welcome, class, to the only day of school that counts: Today.
And because this is a lesson for your teacher as well, as we enjoy today together we’ll also spend the moments we’ve all brought with us only on things that matter, and we won’t stop to count them. Because, just like money, time isn’t worth anything in itself; it only has value for what it can be traded. Time is far more valuable than money, though, because we can never get it back, never make more than we have been given. Our time will be lavished on those we love, and used to add as many people as we can to that list. Time is well spent in walking a really good dog, learning about the world, reading, and complaining sometimes that it rains on our picnic – but then enjoying the smell and touch of it anyway. In the midst of it all, we will remain open to the funny bits, especially when they happen to us, because time spent laughing is always cherished and remembered. Most importantly, as each of us takes a turn as students, parents, and teachers, we’ll spend lots of time with the children in our lives. Those are the times that give life meaning beyond the years that we ourselves have been given.
Next, as we journey through life, we will look for smart people and tough problems. Smart people tend to flock together, and if we find that kind of a flock, we’ll fly with it, maybe even lead it after a while. Tough problems are easy to spot, because tough often means worry. If we're not fretting sometimes that something on which we're working will come out badly, or that we won't be able to understand something we’re studying, then it isn't tough enough. There must be risk to the tasks we undertake, some suspense in our efforts. We’ll survive the few falls we may take; a fear of falling is powerful motivation to learn to stay on the climb! It may sound a bit grim at first, but that kind of worry is actually a good thing. In fact, there is a word for facing our fears and doing well anyway. It’s called courage, and its results are known as achievement.
As we work on those tough problems and surround ourselves with a few other smart, happily worried people, we mustn’t forget to also get things done that make life fuller, constantly growing our spirits and minds. That may mean learning how to write well just for the sake of it, how to draw a human face from life; learning an exotic language, the history of our ancestral homes, or how to tie our own flies. These sorts of things aren’t quantifiable, so they won’t show up on college applications or framed certificates on a wall, but they make us whole and well as people. It’s why teachers (both the “schooly” ones and the “lifey” ones) spend so much time on whales and music, stars and spiders and poetry and pioneering - with drawing shadows and exploring the world in wooden ships, yoga and yodeling and “yearning to breathe free.” Those things will never help you balance a checkbook, but they will go a long way toward balancing a life.
Finally, as any good storyteller knows, we must listen more than we speak in class. That way, when opportunities come, and they will, we’’ll have learned and considered things to say that may actually be worth the time of others. But in this, we will often be frustrated, because ours is a world filled with people more concerned with what they will say and not what they will hear, and those who think and know the least will think and know it the loudest. That is why the world they create is a chaotic, noisy, and shallow place, filled with instant emotions, ignorant certainties, and meaningless pleasures. Therefore, we have to be thoughtful about what’s worth listening to. I hope that among those things will be your learning to write, or sing, or paint about the things that touch you, the stuff about which you really care, and that captures your passion and curiosity. We must take the love and beauty and meaning that we are offered and let it become a shared, creative force beyond our personal gratitude. That's the purpose of this time, this class, this life: not waiting for something good to just happen right in front of us, but seeking and growing the stuff that makes the world meaningful for us, and better for others. And so long as the work is honest and fun, don't worry too much if some particular venture doesn't seem to be following a path you're supposed to follow according to some pre-imagined set of rules. Paths are always bendier than we think they’ll be. They begin with our first steps down them, with our knowing a little bit about their direction, maybe even having a destination in mind, but understanding that the ones that matter are long, and we can’t truly see their ends from their beginnings.
As we walk, an amazing thing will happen. The snide and cowing voices that fill our ears with doubts, biting at our spirits every day, lose their fangs, fading behind us as we travel and laugh, leaving only the quiet voices with us, those from whom we really learn. The voices of family, friends, faith, children, conscience – and love.
As with any good lesson, here is the simple review, although the test will continue for the rest of your lives. Every day in this life, love with abandon, learn with joy, and laugh with experience. While my journeys tomorrow will take me from your sides, they will never take you from my heart, and I so look forward to seeing your paths grow longer and your stories deeper, and to sharing the ones I plan to walk and tell. Oh, and as your English teacher, I must remind you one last time of the differences between Life’s key adjective and adverb:
Be good, class – and do it well.