I assume that most high school teachers get flooded with yearbooks to sign this time of year. I love this tradition, so I always put a lot of pressure on myself to write something funny, memorable, and creative. I secretly wish I had the skills to doodle some charming little cartoon character and text bubbles to deliver my words.
I usually write something cheesy or ridiculous and then end with something a bit deeper. The format is annoying. It's meant to make the student laugh, and then say, “aw, Mr. Boll, that’s so nice!” Really, I guess that is what I’m going for.
That’s what I do. But today, a graduating senior threw a mostly blank journal on my desk in the midst of the yearbooks.
“Write some advice Boll, I’m going to college next year and I want my teachers to write advice that I can read when things get hard.”
I leafed through the pages before the page he opened for me to use. The two teachers before me had written 2 or 3 pages of what appeared to be really sound advice. I wanted to read what they wrote to set the expectations, but I felt like I was intruding. In passing, I saw a Rudyard Kipling quote, which made me secretly wish that I had some powerful literary advice that I could add to the pages. I had nothing. But either way, it was clear the student had no respect for my three-sentence yearbook signing formula. He was calling bullshit on the process I had honed for years.
Seriously though, I feel a bit humbled by requests like this. Especially from kids like this one, who is a part of a really special graduating class. I’m sure I would say that about all classes, for different reasons, but these kids are really amazing. Although they were actually in my class last year, most of them stopped by my room every day through their senior year, making their presence as much a part of this year as last. I love them for that.
One of the really draining parts about teaching, especially for those of us who are introverts, is this process of learning to know and giving so much of ourselves to students who leave. And then, doing it all over again the following year. We don’t talk about this that much. Instead, we favor that feeling of wanting to “get the year over with” and “not see some of these faces again.”
So I sat in front of the empty page on the notebook, and all I could come up with was an idea to flip his request. Instead of giving him advice, I made a top-ten list of things that student had taught me. I told him to look at these things, believe them, and teach them to some other folks along the way. I will remember them, so he would do the world well to teach some others these things.
I’ll include a few of those things here, as well as some more general things I learned from the great group of people who will graduate this year. That might cause some pronoun confusion. Get over it.
You taught me to learn in all moments, even when no one is actually “teaching” anything. So even in classes or moments in our days that are un-academic, there are things happening that teach us. People are always learning, and it helps us to be aware of that. And we learn more when we look for it.
We should give people the benefit of the doubt. In so many ways, my students give me that benefit, as a white man teaching in a school that is majority non-white. I’m impressed by that. I tend to doubt people subconsciously, so I want to be more like students in this way.
I should try everything. At least the non-harmful things. I watched this class understand that the worse that could happen is failure. And failure is much less painful than regret.
Be willing to speak the truth, especially at times that the truth feels uncomfortable. I also watched this class navigate discussions on racism they see in school, and speak to teaching practices that demonstrated low expectations. They did that with grace and honesty that I admire.
I should learn to do a lot of different dances and be willing to break into them at any moment. Even if I have just been crying, swearing, or reading. As a mental note, I should learn cool dances to Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It,” “Choppa Style,” by none other than Choppa, and all relevant line dances. And also irrelevant ones, just to have them in my pocket.
I’ll stop with this list, with the fear that it is starting to feel like a bad graduation card or motivational website. I could tell stories about how the class of 2017 embodied each of these pieces of advice. Or, I could show videos of bad line dance moments in room 375.
I think the point is that we learn a lot from our students. And if you are confused about what to write in the pile of yearbooks that come across your desk this week, or next year, or whenever, just try to tell the student something that you learned from them. That is certainly more memorable than any bad advice that I can muster. And far more memorable than my bad jokes.