The Last Lesson
Like almost every senior, teachers are looking forward to the end of the school year with great anticipation. Yes, it is an exciting time for this year’s graduating class, and for most teachers, it means that the end of their year is rapidly approaching.
I know what you’re thinking.
You imagine teachers running to their cars shouting a Homer Simpson-like “Woo-Hoo” and heading off on long vacations to forget about school, and honestly, there is more than a kernel of truth in that.
The end of school is a relief for teachers, and vacations are nice when we can afford them, but for me the end of school comes with mixed emotions.
For the past 20 years as I have walked to my car on that last day, I have thought about how that moment of joy is in part a poignant time too.
I think this is especially true for senior teachers. Students with whom I have invested a good portion of my life over the last year are leaving, and most I will never see again.
I think about this every year, and I always wonder if I said everything I should have said before they left.
I don’t know about other teachers, but I have never really known what to write in students’ yearbooks. How am I supposed to summarize in a few lines all of the hopes I have for my students and to express the appreciation I will carry for them when they are long gone.
I once joked that the easiest thing would be for me to get a rubber stamp that read:
Have a nice summer.
While this would give my inscriptions a consistency and would be a testament to my quirky sense of humor, it isn’t very inspiring.
So what follows is my attempt to put into words what I could never fit in the corner of a yearbook page.
To my Graduating Seniors
I know that in the days ahead your lives will include periods of pain and hardship. Financial pressures, illness, and stress from school, work and family will visit you again and again as the months and years roll by.
God knows I want nothing but the best for your lives. I want you all to grow to be caring, responsible citizens, good husbands and wives, Moms and Dads and friends and neighbors, but those qualities don’t come through an easy life.
People who have worried about making the next month’s rent payment or struggled to work and care for a sick parent tend to be more grounded people. Adversity has a way of burning off the superficiality in people and makes them have more compassion for their fellow man.
I want you to know these blessings of prosperity without letting materialism control your life. The older I get the more I appreciate the simple things in life. Anyone who knows me will tell you of my love for computers, electronics and travel, but those things bring only temporary satisfaction.
Jesus taught this when he said:
“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
A modern paraphrase states it, “Life is not defined by what you have, even when you have a lot.”
I know that this runs counter to almost everything you hear in this world, but I believe it with all my heart, and in time, I am convinced that most of you will discover it too.
Advertising is designed to entice you with vague promises of a rich full life, but expensive jewelry, designer clothes and luxury cars won’t make you happy any more than wearing a Texans jersey makes me J.J. Watt.
There is nothing wrong with having nice things, but if you expect them to bring you lasting satisfaction, I am afraid you will be sorely disappointed.
Instead, invest your life in helping others. Take care of your family and friends and do good things for people who can do nothing for you. Spread encouragement wherever you go, and as you do you will find that in helping others you are helping yourself.
You won’t hear this advice much in the popular culture today, but if you do these things you will find a genuine satisfaction that will surprise you and give you an unexpected joy.
Finally, you all have to grow up, but I don’t think you have to get old. Maturity is underrated among high school students, but at the same time it is easy for some of us who are a few decades removed from high school to forget what it is like to be young.
For the last several years I have played Rod Stewart’s song Forever Young to my seniors on the last day of class. I think it sums up the hopes I have for my students:
May the good Lord be with you
Down every road you roam
And may sunshine and happiness
Surround you when you’re far from home
And may you grow to be proud
Dignified and true
And do unto others
As you’d have done to you
Be courageous and be brave
And in my heart you’ll always stay
Oh, and have a nice summer.