We Never Know

How will you use what you’ve learned in this class in the future?

Public Speaking Class Reflection

Finals Week at BFA. I have no tests to give today, so after finishing my answer keys and entering every last quarter grade into my spreadsheet, I turn to the reflections my Public Speaking students completed yesterday, their last day of class.

I once called this class “the Most Practical Class you can take at this school.” A grand label, I realize, but only somewhat hyperbolic. And today they’re looking back and ahead. What did I learn? How will I use it? What should others remember? How should this class proceed in the future? The answers that interest me most today those that require some imagination: “How will I use this knowledge?”

My students do not disappoint, writing about job interviews and class presentations, valedictorian speeches, toasts and eulogies. Others are more vague, insisting that they’ve gained the confidence to have more meaningful conversations, or in general to become better communicators. I hope they’ll go further, that the study of effective communication makes them informed citizens, skeptics in a world that needs them, but in reality, I know the real answer: You have no idea how you’ll use this class.

The most common complaint I hear among young adults–those who’ve left here or other places, who’ve graduated high school and college and embarked on the adventure of “real life”–is a lack of direction. Perhaps they expect, as my ninth graders at Ingraham used to, that by 21 they will own a house and a car, that they’ll be married and working in their dream job.

The reality is different, of course. They have jobs at desks when they thought they’d be outside, or behind counters making coffee, when they thought they should already be publishing political commentary for the Atlantic. They’re wondering if their expensive degrees were a waste of time and money, if they’ll ever use anything they learned in those mandatory years of school for any practical purpose. They don’t see how it fits together, and it’s discouraging.

There is already plenty of commentary in the world about Millennials and their high expectations, but their questions aren’t new ones. All the way back to Genesis, I think of Joseph, wondering what as a teenager he expected for his life. Even his wildest dreams–dreams that elevated him to power over his ten brothers and his own father–couldn’t have included being second-in-command over Egypt. Perhaps he expected to somehow bypass traditions of birthright, as his father had before him, and own the family business someday. Certainly he didn’t see himself stewarding the resources of a foreign kingdom and saving strangers from a worldwide famine.

Many young adults find that their road is a winding one, but this, too, shouldn’t surprise us. Joseph’s road led through kidnapping, slavery, false accusation and imprisonment, each new place more degrading than the last. He had questions at every juncture, I’m sure, but he also kept thriving, wherever he found himself. He wasn’t “just” a slave in Potiphar’s house; he flourished there, skillfully managing the household. He didn’t disengage in prison, but with God’s help rose to a position of power and authority, which brought him to a moment when a long-lost skill, the interpretation of dreams, brought him before the Pharaoh himself. Could Joseph have known, that day when he interpreted his own dreams and got himself thrown into a hole, that the very skill that caused his brothers to turn on him would catapult him to the top of Egypt? We never know.

My public speaking students are mostly seniors, one semester away from the glorious, adventurous uncertainties of college and young adulthood. I’d like to tell them that they don’t need to know what they’ll do in five years, or ten. A huge part of honoring God means showing up every day, keeping their eyes open and being ready to learn all they can from each moment. Some learning resurfaces years later, when you find yourself playing viola in a Suessical orchestra, or using those Excel skills from your college assistant job to create a grade book at your first-ever teaching assignment. Other skills–like AP Chemistry and making lattes–I’m still waiting on, but I’m still grateful.

So whether they use this class to run for president someday or to chat with someone on the train, either way I’m satisfied. We never know where learning takes us if we keep showing up, and that’s fine. All the better for the adventure.

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