Commencement {Of Dreams, Failure, and Asking For Help}

A student gives his commencement speech in Public Speaking class.

Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.

1 Timothy 4:12

A ninth-grader stoops down to zip up the long robe, struggling with the zipper until a classmate helps him.

“Do I have to wear the hat?” he asks me, adjusting the polyester garment that billows around him like a navy cumulus cloud.

“Only if you want to,” I reply. “It’s an optional hat today.”

“Oh, I want to,” he decides, pulling the mortarboard down over his hair. “Is this right?”

I nod approvingly, and he’s ready to begin.

After a good deal of preparation, which involved listening to dozens of examples, coming up with inspirational rhetorical devices and honing personal anecdotes for support, my Public Speaking students are giving commencement speeches this week. Though some, like the young man starting his speech now, are still three years away from completing high school, I’ve asked them all to spend a few weeks listening to and preparing speeches for graduation ceremonies.

Like the college essays that arrive at the end of American Literature each year like a piece of dramatic punctuation, the commencement speech was a curriculum choice that I initially questioned. These are the Hallmark cards of speeches, often filled with platitudes and flowery language, hardly the spontaneous, vibrant speeches on self-selected topics that I enjoy at other points in this class. In a setting where cheesiness is not only accepted but expected, I had little hope for genuine expression or feeling.

Still, the speeches have taught me more about my students, and young people in general, than I could ever have expected. Part of their instruction in preparing the speeches was to build them up on the foundation of what we affectionately called The Wisdom. This Wisdom often took the form of a memorable platitude, a catchphrase that they could emphasize and decorate with anecdotes and rhetoric. While I helped them with the decoration, the foundation was all their own.

There are of course a few students who go with the classic “Follow Your Dream” speech, but there is a great deal of variation, too. I hear several speeches on the importance of failure: accepting it, learning from it, moving on from it. One student talks about humility being the key to success, reminding us that our victories are not just our own, but gifts granted because we live in community. Another focuses her speech on asking for help, and warns that this is only valuable if we’re careful to see assistance from those wiser than ourselves. One of the last speakers encourages his classmates to avoid comparing themselves to each other, and rather to remain confident in the love and approval of the God who made them uniquely.

The speeches are mostly of high quality, sincere and well-delivered, which doesn’t surprise me. What does surprise me is their depth, how these 14- to 18-year-olds have given speeches that are identical in content–though the examples differ to those delivered by people with a great deal more life experience. I realize that these ideals, grand and beautiful exhortations, truly belong to young people. That we’re still repeating them now, as adults, is credit both to the ideas themselves and the kids who discovered them as teenagers.

After spending the last decade in the classroom, I’ve come to take for granted that students have wisdom to offer. I forget that many feel differently, looking at hordes of tall, scowling teenagers with unease or scorn. I wish that I could invite the general teen-fearing public to these commencement speeches, to see the endearingly nervous and entirely sincere presentations of young people happy to use their podium to give their hard-learned advice, which finally has a forum, to a receptive group of peers–and one adult–eager to listen. Young and less-young, we’re not terribly different as we to fail, to dream, and to ask for help from different stages of the journey.

The Patience of Questions

Photo: New Yorker

Photo: New Yorker

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

An orange entrepreneur is telling a story to a red-suited politician.

“…Somebody would call up Sean Hannity, this was before the war started. He and I used to have arguments about the war. I said it’s a terrible and a stupid thing. It’s going to destabilize the Middle East. And that exactly what this’s done.”

I press pause. The students of my public speaking class have found the elusive equilibrium between fascination and boredom in the last period before they depart for their senior trip to Rome. They’ve given their speeches, turned in their homework. Now we’re watching the U.S. presidential debate they’ve heard a lot about, but haven’t experienced themselves.

“What… what is he even saying?” one girl asks, baffled. “The moderator asked why he had better judgement than Hillary. So… what?”

“I just heard ‘Sean Hannity’ about seven times,” I admit. “Other than that, I have no idea.”

The nuances of this debate are lost on my students, for the most part. They don’t know the jargon, the background, the political gossip that decorates both news and entertainment these days. They don’t all hold American passports, though even that isn’t a guarantee of political engagement. Still, they suspect it’s important, so they watch and comment.

The last few months in American politics have prompted several articles from prominent writers and news anchors, who  feel for the first time ambivalent about their roles of “unbiased journalists” in the face of what they see as huge threats to our nation. They want to pick a side, to tell one story, and often they do.

Sitting at the front of the classroom, with a room full of students with only half-formed opinions, I suddenly understand the feeling. I don’t have the ear of the nation—I’m no New York Times columnist or CNN reporter, trying to justify my bias—but I do have a bit of influence. Over just this small world, just a few minds. What will we do with it, ask teachers everywhere, cracking our knuckles like super-villians.

As we watch this debate, I have to bite my tongue often to keep from telling them not just what I think, but what to think. It’s not a new feeling, the temptation to just tell people what to do, and pray that they listen. Today, with these eager high school seniors, I realize that the most important shortcuts I’d take as their teacher and mentor aren’t even political ones. There are mistakes that I’d like to warn them off of, life paths down which I’d point them decisively. They have questions–about God, about life, about love–that I could start to answer. I could just tell them, and if they’d just listen life would be so much easier.

"Incredulity of Saint Thomas," Caravaggio

“Incredulity of Saint Thomas,” Caravaggio

Last weekend I had the opportunity to sit on a panel of other community members at the local church, for a forum for youth called “Conversations.” The topic of the day was curiosity, both the attention and the boldness it takes to ask questions. They looked at Carravagio’s painting of Thomas, examining the way Jesus not only allows but welcomes Thomas’s questioning, pulling his hand to the wound to show him. We discussed the role of questions in forming our own faiths at various seasons in our lives, assuring students that we’d asked questions of our own, and continue to do so now.

“Having the answers” (or even just thinking I do) is deceptive kind of power, really not much power at all. The notes that my students write down and memorize produce only impermanent results, not lasting life influence. They repeat that “Jesus” is the answer, but can’t show their work. The research they do on their own, painstaking and circuitous, full of questions and dead ends, is where the real learning happens. The questions take so much longer, but the earned answers are the ones that last. I can only walk with Christ when he is a person I know, not a word to fill in the blanks, a prescribed selection on a ballot of life choices. And knowing takes time.

When my class’s debate commentary dwindles, I unfreeze Mr. Trump and let him finish complaining about Secretary Clinton’s temperament. We giggle at her now-famous shoulder shimmy of a response, and watch a few more exchanges before moderator Lester Holt redirects them with a calm, “It’s time to move on.”

“It’s time for us to move on, too,” I say, closing my laptop. “But quickly–politics aside–what would you say to Donald Trump if you were his public speaking teacher?”

“Make an outline!” my students cry. “Seriously. An outline, and stick to it. He would be so much clearer, and then we could understand him.”

For the thousandth time I’m reminded that I’m not in the business of teaching young people what to think, nor can I make them believe. I can teach them how to think, I can teach them how to ask questions. I can tell them who I believe in and why. And I can walk with them, with patience and God’s grace, on the road to learning and faith that takes longer, yes, but is a journey all their own.