A Few Parting Words for Students

Thursday was the last day for seniors, so a pretty consistent stream of scared 18-year-olds walked into my room for a handshake, thanks offered in both directions, and a few quick platitudes.

I tell them that I’m cheering for them.

They say thanks and they won’t forget me.

I say that is kind, and let them know that they can always reach out if they need anything. Whether that is a letter of recommendation or cup of coffee and a conversation, they can reach out.

Then they say thanks again and they look reminiscently around the room. They, they walk slowly to the door. Sometimes I sign a yearbook, or they give me a picture, or we have some kind of specific conversation about a funny or profound memory.

And always, as they shuffle towards the rest of their lives, I think to myself that I wish I had something more significant to say.

On Thursday, one student caught me off guard.

“Hey Boll- I’m out. What is your advice?”

Some of my most regrettable moments in teaching have been when students ask me for some heartfelt and meaningful parting advice and my words fall short. I think I should have some canned remarks along the lines of President Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” speech. I imagine that everybody should be crying in the end because I unearthed some artifact of truth that none of us ever noticed before. Sure, some of this feeling comes from that ridiculous teacher need to feel important (this need requires another post soon), but some of it comes from a really good place that wants to feel prepared for a predictable moment.

Then I realize that I have nothing, and I do what I always do when I am uncomfortable. I fall into bad attempts at humor.

I tell them that they should never try to convince themselves that white socks are acceptable with dress pants of any kind.

Or I tell them that if you put your cups upside down in the cabinets that people will assume you have some kind of bug or rodent infestation.

Or I might tell them to try to keep a $20 bill in their wallet or purse at all times because my cousin told me that adults always have a little bit of cash. It’s one of the many things that disqualifies my attempts at adulthood.

On Thursday, I tried a little bit harder, but it still felt contrived.

“Take a look at how hard everyone around you is working, and try to work a little bit harder.”

The student thanked me and left, and I felt like I need to be more prepared for that kind of question. So I started thinking about what I really want to tell students on their last day. It could be the last day in my class or the last day in high school, but I want to leave them with a few words, admissions, and maybe even some advice.

Take it or leave it. But probably leave it. As I mentioned before, these kind of things aren’t my strong suit.

Thanks for hanging out with me for these 180 days. I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing.

Most of your teachers, myself included, are trying pretty hard. I’m consistently humbled by the fact that you walk into my class every day and put up with me, and I tried not to waste your time. In fact, my goal is always for you to leave this space better than you were when you walked in. But here is the thing: I usually don’t know what I’m doing. Or at least, I don’t know everything. I made mistakes every day, and in almost every class period, along the way. I could say I’m sorry for that, but I will probably do that again next year because I’ve learned that failure is a very real and important part of this process. The best people recognize their failures, understand them, and then try to change so they improve the next time.

If you ever think that you have mastered something, you have probably done quite the opposite. You’ve just stopped noticing failures and you’ve become mediocre. Mastery is worth striving for, but you should never get there.

As you enter the “real world,” you are going into a space that can be cruel, unjust, and intentionally exclusive. But you know that because you went to a neighborhood public school in urban America.

I’m angry that you are only 17 or 18, and you already been victimized by more exclusionary practices than most experience in a lifetime. The school system in America was deliberately designed, and it is upheld by all of us, to advantage some and disadvantage others. Words like choice, magnets, and charters have produced schools today that are more segregated than ever before, and the system is upheld and propagated by so many of us. “Public” dollars in almost every state have been used to cater to wealthier and whiter communities while abandoning entire segments of the population. I’d like to tell you that other systems in life will have better, and more inclusive, mechanisms.

But I think I would be lying.

Work to push back on all of this. I’ll do whatever I can to help you. Avoid the people who don’t push back on this.

Dance.

In class on Friday, I started nodding my head and frantically moving my arms to “Poison” by Bell Biv Devoe. I wasn’t the only one dancing, but a girl looked at me and smiled.

“Mr. Boll- you definitely seem like a white dad when you dance.”

Then, in an act of pure mercy, she helped me find the beat a little bit more by telling me when to nod my head.

I smiled, and now with the eyes of the whole class on me, I kept dancing.

It’s tempting to let the shit that this world piles on some people get so heavy that it keeps us from smiling, laughing, and dancing.

But don’t give in to that temptation. Dancing is free, smiling doesn’t require a decent credit score, and laughter is a good look for everyone.

Oh, and stay in touch. Your teacher wants to hear about the dance.