To the Class of 2016

Graduation210If you ask any teacher worth his or her salt, they’re going to tell you that every student is special. There is a special place in the heart of every teacher for their students.But once you get past the generic mushy mess, the sentimentality varies in degree from one class to another, from one student to another.

That being said, I’m pretty partial to the class of 2016. They are not my first group of seniors to deal with—in fact they are my fourth—but they are the first class I’ve had twice. When I started in the district, I taught 8th grade. After surviving two years in one of the toughest inner city schools in Jackson (I like to call those years my “Navy SEALS training of education”), the only opening that I could fill in my hometown was 8th grade English.

There is a vast difference between middle schoolers and high schoolers, urban kids and suburban kids. I was equipped with skills to survive the urban environment, but I had no idea how unprepared for suburban middle school I was. After looking back at my first week as an 8th grade teacher, I realize I was a bit hard on them, not that it didn’t do them some good. They needed some toughness in their world.

Getting to know you…
My first year in the district, I met a group of kids without the slightest clue of how they would impact my life. Education experts will tell you that students learn best when they’re put into groups and have to teach a concept to the class. Clearly, this assertion is true to anyone who has ever taught anything. Teachers will tell you for a fact they know their content because they have to actually teach it.

The same thing goes for getting to know your clientele. The more time you spend with a group, the more you get to know them. That group of 8th graders was also my first group of 11th graders at the high school.

Having these students twice was fun—challenging, but fun. Some of these kids were behavior issues back in the day but somehow turned themselves around. Some kids were middle school angels and stayed their angelic selves as juniors. Some were just as challenging as juniors as when they were 8th graders.

It’s a Microcosm
There are so many social circles in a high school. To actually think you’re going to have one set of friends and no one else is asinine. The world of high school really is a little world unto itself. I’ve gotten to know so many people who run in so many different circles that I feel like I’m a correspondent for 60 Minutes looking in on an adolescent world.

There’s a handful of kids I’ve gotten to know very well. From a group of guys that were in my first 8th grade group to some students I’ve gotten to discuss writing or sports or music with. I’ve even made connections with a few other kids, from a dude I taught whose dad was in my graduating class to a girl whose sister is about to marry my brother-in-law. I’ve gotten to see “annoying” pre-teen boys and girls grow into beautiful young women and strapping young men. I’ve even met some new students who came from other states or other schools. To say I’ve been lucky to get to know these kids is an understatement.

Chapmanesque Advice
I try to give them advice—well, as much advice as a childish 31-year-old can give. I’ve witnessed kids go through some very rough patches and they came to me for some answers. The gravity associated to giving this kind of advice is weighty. I know I’m not the only voice in their world, but I’m one of them, and that’s a big deal.

The Good Book talks about how teachers of the Word are held to a higher standard. I understand that more after these past few years. Parents trust me, almost blindly, with their kids. If I were to violate that trust, I’ve lost everything. I constantly pray that I’m in tune with good advice. I have to practice what I preach: Character and Integrity are built independently. You destroy your integrity, you’re empty.

This is the last week I get to hang out with my seniors at the high school. They’ve grown to be more than just students. They’re kind of my little friends, my compadres. I’m ready for them to get their chance with the real world. Some are going to flourish while others flounder. It’ll scare them, but I’ve abided in both of those worlds and know that both are survivable.

Deuces!
Here’s my parting shot. I don’t get to give uplifting speeches or pep talks to graduating seniors. I teach juniors, so I get to give the “You have to come back next year” speech. It’s not as welcomed as the commencement speech.

What I’d like to tell the class of 2016 is that you have spent a long time getting ready, training, preparing for the rest of your life. You’re going to have some really great times, and you’re going to experience some really, REALLY hard times. You have to keep trudging on. Just because you’ve graduated high school doesn’t mean you get to rest on your laurels. You now have a ticket into the real world.

Up until Thursday, we’ll look at you as the little ones. You still have to ask permission to go to the restroom, and you still need a pass. But when Friday hits, you’re part of the fray.

Expect some punches, some cheap shots, some expected shots, some shots you deserve, and some you don’t. How do you hit back? When you fall down, do you get back up? That’s going to separate you from the heard. It’s going to take a while to build your world…brick by brick…and that world can be destroyed in a day. Chipper pep talk, huh?

I’m proud to know these kids. Coach Chapman is definitely proud of y’all. But when you graduate, remember, I’m “Robert.” I’m here if you need me.

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