On a recent cleaning binge, my mom found my 11th grade report card stuffed in a file box along with old writings, homework assignments and a certificate announcing that I had passed Drivers Education class in August of 1997.
I’m 37 years old, and a high school teacher now, and everyday I witness the enormous pressures that 11th graders (and their parents) place on their still-rounding shoulders.
High school mythology decrees that 11th grade is the Acropolis. It’s the most important 10 months of your life. The make or break year. The one that demands academic greatness. The 11th grade transcript is the one colleges scrutinize and consider the most when deciding to accept or decline your admission. According to legend,11th grade is the year where your destiny is formed and fated.
Below you will find my 11th grade year end report card.
It’s apparent that at 16 years old I wasn’t overly concerned with achieving academic greatness. To be honest, my main concern was scoring a date with the pretty girl in Spanish class. Spoiler alert….9 years later I would marry that senorita… muy suave!
My Class Ranking
If my 11th grade report card is an approximation of my destiny, I’m destined to be stunningly average.
I ranked 168 out of 337 students in the 11th grade class. If you do the math (because, clearly, my algebra grade indicates I don’t math) 337/2 = 168.5
Analysis: In high school I was absolutely, fantastically, beautifully average.
Final Grade: 87
Analysis: Religion was my second highest grade in my report card. I believe the grade is slightly underwhelming given the fact this was my 11th year of Catholic education.
But like a true B+ Catholic, I knew the basics of the Bible, received the required sacraments and was a semi-annual church goer (Christmas & Easter) who pretended to go every Sunday.
Final Grade: 85
Analysis: This was a massive blow to my current (and slightly bloated) ego.
I have presented at writing workshops for college professors.
My article, “It’s called The Alchemist and you should read it”was recently retweeted by International Bestselling Author Paulo Coehlo.
Yet, in spite of all that, an unimpressive B in 11th grade English will forever be etched in the annals of time.
American History 3
Final Grade: 89
Analysis: Everything I know about American History I learned from watching Forrest Gump.
Final Grade: 74
Analysis: In high school I clearly did not understand algebra which, interestingly was the very last time in my life I was forced to multiply numbers by letters.
Final Grade: 84
Analysis: According to my teacher, Mr. Krier, I was “one of the top one of the students in the class.” I earned an 84. Either he was just being nice or I was, in fact, the one star in a constellation of street lamps.
Final Grade: 77
Analysis: I blame Cindy for this one. I spent the entire year distracted by her legs and perfecting such romantic expressions as “Coma estas, chica?” and “Muy caliente” in a deep, seductive inflection.
Analysis: One of my students once told me that he was going to be an accountant because in 11th grade he did well in accounting class. If 11th grade grades are indicators of future professions I clearly should have been a professional athlete.
Final Grade: 97
Analysis: Minus a shirttail infraction, which was sheer blasphemy in a Catholic school, I was absolute saintly.
It’s time to be serious.
I didn’t learn much in high school.
It’s nothing against my teachers but, aside from meeting Cindy and a group of friends I’m still close with, the educational experience was uninspiring.
In fact, I can’t name one high school teacher who inspired me to become a teacher.
So why did I become a high school teacher if my experience in high school was incredibly forgettable?
It’s a question I’ve tussled with lately.
Selflessly, I want to spend my days talking and teaching about reading and writing. But I also think I’m attempting to vindicate my own stale high school experience.
Work is a tricky thing. Immersing yourself in work for only a paycheck is a soul-sucking existence. Working for personal fulfillment is righteous but doesn’t pay the electric bill.
Maybe, if we look hard enough, we find work that fills a previous void.
Maybe, teaching is my attempt to provide students with experiences I never had. And maybe, selfishly, I stand and deliver in the classroom everyday attempting to fall in favor with the teacher, earn some extra credit and improve that 85.
Tim Ferriss is an entrepreneur, writer, angel investor and podcaster extraordinaire. A human dynamo with a child-like curiously and Stoic self-discipline, Tim has built himself into a multi-media giant.
The Tim Ferriss Show started as an experiment in 2014. However, it’s now one of the top podcasts on iTunes, collecting over 150 million downloads to date. Tim’s purpose is to “deconstruct would class performers” attempting to learn the habits and philosophies of ultra successful people including Arnold Schwarzengger,Jamie Foxx, Seth Godin and Brene Brown.
Amazingly, despite it’s success, the podcast remains a low-budget, lightly-edited production. An undecorated classroom, if you will.
How does Tim do it? What’s his secret sauce?
Tim Ferriss, like an effective teacher, asks his guests really good questions.
The world is changed by your example, not by your opinion.– Tim Ferriss
Tim constructs questions that reveal the deep truths and stories of his guests. By designing, then asking well-crafted questions–the answers are authentic and rich and make for great entertainment.
For teachers, it’s imperative to understand that if you want your students to elicit meaningful responses, you have to craft meaningful questions.
When classroom questions lack quality, student responses will lack quality.
Often, the educational wheel is clogged with buzz words and en vogue practices. Progression is great but curiosity coupled with crafting and asking good, meaningful questions is the ancient foundation on which education was built.
The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.–Socrates
The Open Question Effect
Asking “closed questions” or questions with finite response are good to assess comprehension and retention.
Who was the first President of the United Sates?
“Open questions” or questions with infinite response are necessary to increase engagement, encourage discussion and inspire critical thinking.
What do you think George Washington was feeling when he was nominated to be the first President of the United States?
Open questions requires students to work. To answer an open question, you may have to mine through your own contradictions to find the most honest answer. It’s from this mining where genuine and meaningful answers are discovered.
Maybe George Washington was excited at the prospect but, I have to think, he was overwhelmed, and possibly discourage, by being the first president of a new nation.
Tim demonstrates how open questions spark honest and rich conversation. Most of his published podcast run for well over an hour. However, his unedited conversations, like two old friends just talking, last for hours. (A recent conversation with ESPN founder Bill Rasmussen lasted 3 hours.) It’s the flexibility of these open questions that propel these marathon conversations.
It’s near impossible to fake interest.
And students know when teachers are or are not interested in their ideas. When students feel this interest, they’re more willing to share themselves, become healthy risk takers and subsequently, develop into more creative and critical thinkers.
The art of listening is the most fundamental way to honor any relationship.
Tim Ferriss models that to be a good interviewer, you must be an active listener. Though many of his questions are scripted, many are not. Many questions, follow-up and clarifying questions, are spawned from the rhythms of the conversations.
As a teacher, like a good interviewer, you must invest yourself into your classroom conversation. You must listen in order to ask follow-up and clarifying questions. By actively listening to students, teachers build and strengthen the student-teacher relationship. And even if you have 30 students in your class, if you actively listen to them, give their voice ample attention, the learning experience becomes a personal one for each student.
A great interview materializes when the interviewer is willing to be expose their own vulnerabilities.
Tim Ferriss is unafraid to share with his guest (and millions of listeners) his own failures, limitations and struggles with depression and suicidal thoughts. This vulnerability builds a trust with his guest (and his audience) and encourages all listeners to share their own personal struggles.
For teachers, it’s imperative that you present your vulnerability as a strength. A classroom that embraces vulnerability, fosters risk taking and supports authentic student-teacher discussions.
Our vulnerability, our imperfections, establish trust with students and creates a positive classroom culture.
Give vulnerability a shot. Give discomfort its due. Because I think he or she who is willing to be the most uncomfortable is not only the bravest, but rises the fastest.– Tim Ferriss
Call to Action
Listening to podcasts on your commute to and from school is great way to boost creativity and cultivate new ideas.
The Tim Ferriss Show exemplifies the power of good questions. Tim demonstrates how well-crafted questions along with actively listening inspire people to share more of themselves.
In terms of education, student success often hinges on a teachers ability to construct and ask meaningful questions that encourage reflection and critical thinking– two essential practices for student growth.
Below you will find 7 of Tim’s best questions. See if you can borrow, shape and scale any of them to fit your classroom and content. Theses questions may serve as interesting writing prompts or discussion starters:
Who or what is your darkest teacher?
What’s one thing that you do that people think is crazy and why do you do it?”
If you could relive one moment in your life, which would you choose and why?
Who is the first person that you think of when you hear “success”? Why?
If you could have a giant billboard with one message on it, to inspire thousands of people, what would it say?
What have you changed your mind about in the last few years and why?
With that being said, there is no better school day than the first day to engage students with a story.
Here are five reasons why you should tell a story on the first day of school:
1.You Will be Memorable
The first day of school is the last day to make a first impression.
For students, the excitement of the first day quickly ends when all their teachers are doing the same thing, “Hello…How was your summer?…Here is the course syllabus and here are the classroom rules…”
Do something different. Leave a good impression. Tell a story.
A first day story will get students excited for the impending school year. It will be something they tell their friends and parents about. Which, by them sharing your story, they are learning an important lesson– we are all storytellers and we pass our stories along to deepen our connection with others.
Suggestion–The first day is a great time to share a story about a personal failure. Talking openly about failure shows humility and vulnerability, two qualities children too rarely find in adults. Admitting you failed will immediately make you more relatable to your students.
2.You Will Calm Your First Day Jitters
Like students, teachers also get first day jitters. These jitters are often fueled by the new school year blitz of emails introducing new teachers, new initiatives, new procedures, and new curriculum.
In addition to all this newness, you still have to plan for your first class. A first class where you may feel the squeeze of trying to include every detail about class, its content and the year ahead. But you don’t. The school year is a marathon, not a sprint.
Take a deep breath and remember, we were storytellers long before we were teachers. Sharing stories is natural, nonthreatening way to communicate important ideas.
3.You Will Begin Establishing Classroom Management
By telling a story, you are establishing the value listening. A value that you expect your students practice. Because listening is how we honor relationships. Because listening is the foundation of effective classroom management and effective teaching and learning.
4.You Will Begin Creating a Classroom Community
Stories bring people together. Stories are for sharing.
The first day story will help your students understand they’re part of a community and acknowledge that your classroom is a place of acceptance. A healthy environment which promotes vulnerability and authenticity. If students feel safe and supported they will be more open to future learning.
Open to me, so that I may open.
Provide me your inspiration
So that I might see mine. —Rumi
5.You Will Be Creating Emotional Engagement
Stories make us feel.
While immersed in a story we begin to feel what the characters feel. If they cry, we may want to cry. This empathy is a vital classroom component. When students are emotionally engaged, your instruction will be more impactful and they will be more responsive to constructive criticism from you.
6.You Will Be Speaking Their Language
Though the content of your subject may be new to students, stories are not.
The modern student has been raised on social media.And at its core, social media is simply an advanced form of storytelling. As a teaching strategy, storytelling will help student see how their classroom learning can be similar and as entertaining as their favorite phone app.
Storytelling is our most primitive vehicle for transferring information, for connecting and teaching. And despite all their modernity, the story form remains incredibly recognizable and important to our students. Use the power of storytelling on the first day to introduce yourself and your content to the students and they will be excited to return for the second day.
Good Luck with the New School Year!
Before you go…
I highly recommend checking out the Tedx Talk, The Magical Science of Storytelling presented by speaker and author David JP Phillips. David explains the biology behind storytelling. How listening to stories release positive chemical reactions in the body, including the release of dopamine in the brain which increases both focus and motivation.
As a teacher, I want to be interesting. I want my students to want to be in my class.
In fact, my philosophy of education has always been rooted in a line from Billy Joel’s Piano Man:
Cause he knows that it’s me they’ve been coming to see To forget about life for a while.
But a student’s perpetual compliant about school is that it’s “so boring.” (Heck, it was my complaint when I was slugging my way through high school 20 years ago.)
But now a teacher myself, I know the job of a teacher is never boring. Teachers are never just teachers. They are therapists, philosophers, referees, doctors, mechanics, meteorologists, secretaries and rodeo clowns.
Teaching requires you to switch professions on a dime. It also requires you to develop new skills, ask deep questions and be a curious and relentless learner.
In short, to be a successful teacher you need to be interesting.
When you’re interesting, students want to be in your class. And when you create such interest, students more willingly immerse themselves in the wonders of the learning process and “forget about life for awhile.”
An administrator once told me that I had to stop telling stories in the classroom. I reacted to the edict by returning to my classroom, opening up my personal anthology and telling even more stories then ever before.
Stories are my bread and butter. If I can’t tell stories, I don’t want to be a teacher anymore.
Stories are how I communicate complex concepts and ideas to my students.
When used properly (not just to waste time or glorify how awesome you are) stories are a fantastic way to hook students into your classroom narrative. A narrative centered on your subject, communicated by you.
2.Teach Life Lessons
You’re older than your students. You’ve been around the block.
Your experience with things like failure and regret and joy and love harbor a wealth of teaching material. By tying your content into the human condition allows students to see how the content relates to things beyond the cinder blocks of school.
I wear khaki pants and canvas Adidas sneakers to school everyday. My “uniform” serves as good fodder for classroom jokes. Jokes that weave into the fabric of the classroom.
Everyone, especially students, love to be a part of an inside joke. Inside jokes are shared experiences that create connections, deepen relationships and show your students that you have a sense of humor.
4.Listen more and ask more questions
Sometimes, you just need to step back and let your students have the floor.
You don’t need to be the center of attention to be an interesting teacher. By really listening to your students and asking them questions about their interests and integrating their interests into your lessons you will establish yourself as a teacher (and an adult) who really listens.
5. Flaunt Your Funk
If you teach middle-school or high school, most of your students think your weird.
It’s hard for students to imagine their teacher having interests that reach beyond the subject matter they teach. But bringing your other interests, your funk into the classroom is a great way to tell more of your story.
Interesting teachers have the audacity to be themselves. They flaunt their funk. It’s what makes them interesting and inspires students to embrace and flaunt there own funkiness.
6. Listen to Podcasts
Listening to podcasts is a great way to be mentally productive outside of the classroom.
Teachers often get so wrapped up in daily demands of teaching that we forget that there is a world outside our school walls.
A world that both you and your students are experiencing.
Connecting content to the current world offers students perspective on a current and common subject. These connections help to captivate students while allowing them to see that school content is relatable to the happenings of the world.
8. Be Positive
By nature, adolescents are an angsty bunch. And looking past the negativity in their lives is difficult.
As a teacher, you have the power to establish the mood in your classroom. By being positive, by leaving your own baggage at home, you offer students a fresh perspective and attitude that they will gravitate toward because they want to be positive but when your 15, being miserable is the cool thing to do.
Being an interesting teacher goes a long way in your classroom and in the lives of your students. You have the unique power to be a positive, interesting force in lives of your students that will shape important attitudes they have about school and learning.
During the week of July 17th, I facilitated the Write on Fight on College Essay Camp for a great group of rising 12th grade students.
Throughout the week we learned:
Why writers should brainstorm like Vin Diesel… Fast &Furious
Why, as writers, should always create more content then we actually need
How to destroy writer’s block
Why writers should always consider the reader’s feelings
How to write a scene of conflict
How to be a self-aware writer
How to captivate your reader with effective verbs
How to properly and effectively break the rules of grammar
How to become a ruthless editor of your own work
How to effectively organize our writing
How to write like a storyteller
The next camp is August 7-11. Limited spaces are available.
If you live in or around the central New Jersey area and would like help crafting an effective college essay as well as learning important writing and editing strategies before another school year begins…contact me at email@example.com
Later the night, while enjoying a well deserved post-graduation beverage, a colleague asked me how long I’d been working on the speech.
I told him I had been brainstorming for a few months.
But the next morning, over a cup of coffee, I realized that the seeds of the speech took root four years prior when members of the graduating class, who were merely freshman, witnessed one of the most difficult admissions of my life.
Here’s what happened.
It was early September. The classroom was warm and bright with afternoon sunshine.
I sat behind my desk. The players sat in the desks before me.
I was quiet. They were quiet. The room was quiet.
In fact, in my world, those days were filled with long quiet stretches, as if everything was waiting for something. As if life was pacing a hospital floor.
They were teenage boys who thought they were in trouble, so they carried themselves with all the intimacies of teenage boys in trouble. Bowed heads, bent eye brows, dropped shoulders.
The day before we lost 8-0. Which, in high school varsity soccer, is a blowout.
They were expecting me to yell. To call them an embarrassment. To challenge their character and commitment. To level an edict of longer, harder practices. There would be less smiling, less fun. More running. More yelling. Until they learned how to practice and play hard. Until they learned to dig deeper, to break through self-made thresholds and not quit on themselves, on their teammates, on the program they represented.
Initially, I pursued a teaching career because I wanted to coach.
In 2006, when I was hired to teach English at Robbinsville High School, I was appointed the first varsity head coach in program’s history.
In fact, this was a big moment in my history.
At 26 I was handed the responsibility of building a high school soccer program in central New Jersey, an area whose soil was rich in soccer tradition.
In those early years we didn’t win many games. But other coaches complimented me on the way we played. The local paper did a story on the program’s positive development. We were making progress.
I ran a fairly tight ship. My preseason workouts were physically and mentally demanding. I held my players accountable on and off the field.
I wanted the program to be a positive force in the players lives. A program that offered instruction both on and off the field. That taught players to replace entitlement with perseverance. Arrogance with integrity. A program that taught players how to embrace adversity.
A few days before I led my players into my classroom, my doctor told me that the next few months were going to be littered with tests. MRI’s. CAT Scans, blood work and a lot of waiting.
The doctor put his hand on my shoulder, instructed me to spend time with my family, prioritize, and remove as much unnecessary stress from my life.
The classroom was bright and warm.
I remember how quiet it was. How they were looking at me with lowered eyes. Afraid of the scolding that they seemed destined for.
I don’t know how I started but I’m sure it was not as graceful as I would have liked.
At some point I told my team I was resigning as their coach.
I admitted to them that I was sick and physically unable to be the coach they needed. And though I didn’t say it, they knew it– I was scared.
I addressed the freshmen specifically. I apologized for my brevity. I told them that I hope I would be around (meaning alive) in four years to see them graduate high school.
Things were quite for awhile.
Then, not knowing what else to do or say, I looked at the assistant coaches, at the team and said, “Alright boys, time to go to work.”
Under a high sun and a wide open blue sky, I stood on the same field I had coached for 9 years and told the graduating class of 2017 to trust their change.
Days when the sun is just right. When in one afternoon, summer folds into fall all at once.
I miss the intensity, the competitiveness.
I miss the halftime speeches.
The victories. The defeats.
But most of all, I miss the players.
The camaraderie. The bond that forms between player and coach.
The candid conversations about how sports and all its trials and tribulations teach us all we need to know about life.
I miss watching my players transform from boys into young men, a massive change that happens as fast and as subtle as a summer thunderstorm, a storm that dawns a perfect afternoon, with a sun that is strong and bright and a sky that is unclouded and forever.
On June 21, 2017 I was fortunate enough to deliver the commencement address at the Robbinsville High School graduation. Over 2,000 people were in attendance. Below is the audio and transcript of my speech.
(Note–Due to rain, the ceremony was delayed 30 minutes.)
Introduction (or my attempt to get the crowd to listen)
First and foremost, I’d like to thank the rain.
Because like study hall or lunch or AP Literature class I used the rain delay to write this speech.
It has not been proofread.
And most of this is written on napkins I found in the commons.
I’d also like to thank…
Dr. Foster, the Robbinsville High School Administration, the Robbinsville Board of Education, colleagues, family, friends, returning Ravens and of course the graduating class of 2017…Thank you.
I appreciate it. I really do.
But I have a ask to question…
What do you say to a stadium full of people who really don’t care what you have to say?
It’s the predicament I’m in right now.
Understand, I’m honored to be here.
But I know my role.
I am your impediment.
The longer I talk, the longer it will take for us to enjoy the sweet elixir of summer.
My job is to fill the Robbinsville sky with poignant wisdom and worldly perspective as a capacity crowd collectively thinks…
“I hope this guy doesn’t take too long.”
I know how unforgiving those bleaches are.
How the June sun is currently burning a hole through your retina.
How you have surveyed the parking lot and proclaimed, “we are never getting out of here.”
In fact, as irrational as it sounds, some of you are contemplating ditching grandma and her one good hip and walking home and not returning for your car until August.
So… the question remains…what do you say?
Maybe I’m being a little too critical, a bit hyperbolic. I know there are a few people in attendance who want to hear me.
My wife. Cindy and I are the American dream …we met in high school, married, bought a house in the suburbs, had 3 adorable children and bought a large SUV that looks like a minivan but it’s really an SUV… I’m sure Cindy would like to hear what I have to say.
My mom is here.
My brother Keith is here… Keith told me that he would only listen if I make frequent allusions to the Beatles and give him an air high 5 when I do.
And statistically, one of the 87 Twamley* boys would like to hear me.
(*the Twamleys are a set of triplet boys in the graduating class)
And that’s about it.
In the whole stadium.
My wife. My mom.
Keith as long as I allude to the Beatles and give him air high fives.
And one of the 87 Twamleys.
Let’s breakdown my situation even further…
What do I say to 221 soon to be high school graduates who know everything?
Seriously. You do.
If you didn’t, they wouldn’t let you graduate.
That’s a rule in New Jersey… along with other rules like no left turns and knowing all the words to Springsteen’s Thunder Road… the greatest song ever written.
So there’s you–the class of 2017, the smartest people in the world…
And then there’s everybody else.
To most people here I’m a stranger.
And what stranger wants to hear advice from another stranger especially if the advice-giving- stranger is punctuating their suit with a pair of sneakers.
So what do you say to make people listen when the promise of summer and freedom and adulthood are achingly close?
I’ve been turning over this question for weeks.
Turning over the thought that I will spend hours writing this speech, you will spend minutes sort-of-listening and in seconds everything I say will be forgotten.
Then I realized that this moment we are sharing, right here, right now is a microcosm for life.
Because once you graduate, the world is waiting for you and the world doesn’t really care what you have to say.
The class of 2017, for 12 years, you’ve been groomed in a school district that has put you first, has listened to your voice.
A district that has held your hand, entertained you, coddled you, pampered you, made you feel special.
And in a few minutes, once you graduate and if you ever escape the parking lot traffic… the cruel world will turn to you, laugh at your ideas and tell you to be quiet.
So if this is a microcosm for life, and I was graduating high school today what would I need to hear?
I decided the best way to deliver this speech is by telling two stories.
Two stories that have made me the person I am today.
One from high school, one from adulthood.
Two stories that.. ready for this Keith… “come together” (high five) to teach one lesson I wish I learned when I was 18.
Because at 18, I really could have used the…”Help” ( high five)
Do you realize what I just did there?
That’s two Beatles allusions in 2 sentences.
The First Story
The first story goes like this…
I’m 14 years old, sitting in freshman English class pretending not to care. Because that’s what the cool kids do– pretend not care.
My teacher,Ms. Baker is handing back our essays–an assignment that required us to write as a Puritan woman being falsely tried as a witch.
I don’t like high school much. The lesson are boring and the homework annoying. The only class I can tolerate is English class.
As I tell you this I can hear the clacks of Ms.Baker’s heels on the classroom tile floor.
Ms.Baker arrives, hands me my essay, smiles and tells me I have talent, that I should keep writing.
She spins and clacks away and before I can smile the kid sitting behind me, the middle linebacker on the freshman football team, whispers “loser” in my ear.
Right then in freshman English class I submitted.
Right then I began to distrust myself.
If my high school offered a class on intuition… I’d failed.
For a long time, almost 20 years, I silenced my voice, my desire write and connect to others because I was afraid of what other people might say.
I listened too closely to opinions.
I bought the fabrications the world was selling.
Don’t buy them.
The Second Story
The second story is one that most of the graduating class is familiar with.
On the first day of the school year I decide that instead of handing out a syllabus, or introducing classroom procedures I would simply to tell a story.
A story that I hoped had enough drama to hold the attention of a room full of angsty 12th graders.
This year I introduced my students to the writing strategy known as full circle.
Full circle is also a band from Central New Jersey currently on hiatus. They have lovely album called “This Long Used Trail” available on Spotify and Soundcloud.
In fact….As you wait in post graduation traffic in your SUV that looks like a minivan but is not a minivan, you just need extra cargo space to fit your kid’s beach toys… you should check them out.
To model the full circle strategy it’s only fitting on the last day of school I tell the same story I told on the first day of school which only seemed like… “Yesterday “ ( high 5)
Class of 2017… this might blow your mind…on the first day of class, while you were admiring each other’s tan……I was writing the end to our story.
All at once I was saying, “Hello, goodbye” (high five).
No, Joe Natalie*…
(a student who, after a rousing lecture on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road… asked if I was God.)
I am not God…
I am the Walrus (Keith … high five)
The second story goes like this…
It’s March 2010.
I’m in my car driving south on 95, into the heart of Philadelphia.
After muscling through evening traffic I find myself on North 20th Street, a block away from the Philadelphia Public Library.
I get of my car, shut the door, turn up my coat collar to the whipping wind and walk south along North 20 Street.
At the corner of Vine Street I hook a left, climb a flight of stairs and find myself in the quiet warmth of the Public Library.
I cross a marble floor, move down a staircase, into an auditorium to see and listen to my literary hero- whose words strengthened my beliefs on writing, storytelling and love and beauty and the purpose of life.
For 90 minutes author Tim O’Brien, writer of The Things They Carried, read from his novel and talked about it. He fielded questions and gave writing advice to novice writers like myself.
Then it was over.
I exit the library, hook a right onto North 20th and march into the howling wind.
I progress up North 20 with the library is on my immediate right.
When I look over to my right… I see Tim O’Brien, alone, leaning against the library, under the throes of a lamp light, smoking a cigarette.
I turn toward him.
I must be 30 feet from Tim O’Brien, my literary hero.
I step forward.
Like some anxious fanboy I turn over all the things I’m about to say to him.
I reach into my bag and pull out my copy of The Thing They Carried. One of the most important books of the 20th century.
It’s at 27 feet where I got nervous. Where I began to distrust myself.
I take a step back.
What would I say to a stranger that is compelling and interesting? What do I say that would inspired him to listen?
The march wind whips my back. Why would a ground breaking author waste his time with me? What if he told me to shut up and go home?
I slip my copy of The Things They Carried into my bag and turn and head north, and open my car door and drive home and pull into my driveway and crawl into my bed and realize in a way I’m still 14, still sitting in freshman English class, still distrusting myself.
Class of 2017, there will be many fine chapters in your book. Stories of victory, love and pride.
Scoring your dream job.
Feeling the love while slow dancing to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” at your dream wedding.
And the swell of pride felt when you buy an SUV that looks like a minivan but is an SUV so your family can enjoy the extra leg room.
But those chapters are often short.
The chapters where sadness, regret, shame are the subjects are the longest, hardest to finish yet they are the stories that make life interesting.
They’re interesting because they test your intrinsic commitment.
My two stories are about regret and judgment and distrusting myself.
Yet I’m so grateful for them, for what they taught me–how you must endure difficulties to find out who you are and what you stand for.
For the last four years you’ve been a cliché.
A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A princess. A criminal.
You’ve played a stock character in a stage production.
But what will you do now?
Those cliches are cute in high school and movies about high school but in the reality of adulthood cliches are boring and uninspiring.
Intuition does not get easier with age.
Self-reliance comes with a real cost.
And a fear of judgement lingers long after high school.
I can only hope that you find the courage to trust yourself, to take the risk to be heard.
You’re impressionable–miles away from figuring out who you are and yet you’re about to change in immense and unknown ways.
Change for yourself and what you believe is right for you.
Trust your change.
Like this speech, high school will end. Your graduation gown will lie in rags at your feet. And adulthood will begin.
But your identity, your voice, your story is just taking shape and important questions await…
What will be the subject of your next chapter?
Will you be a minor character in your own life?
Will your story be the thing that connects you to others?
It’s so easy to plagiarize your life.
Don’t do it.
It’s so easy to believe your own fiction.
Don’t believe it.
Before I go…
I challenge you…
And toil until you to find the courage to tell your story with absolute allegiance to your truth.
Finally, I have a last request…
To quote the ancient Detroit philosopher Eminem…
“If you had one shot, one opportunity to
seize a picture with the class of 2017
would you capture it or just let it slip?”
Class of 2017 and everyone in attendance…
It’s been an honor and privilege…
Good luck with the traffic, thank you and be well.