A Note to Graduates 

May 13, 2017


Dear Graduates,

The month of May is possibly my favorite. I love the weather — summer is trying to shove its way in with welcomed warm breezes, yet spring is holding its own, providing crisp mornings and pleasant evenings. Birds chirp outside my open window at dawn, and a late-inning baseball game glows on my television screen at dusk. There is a freshness in the air that makes me feel renewed. Life is grand.

Perhaps the best part of May, however, is school letting out for the summer. I think back to my own school days and can vividly remember the feeling of sheer excitement and joy as that final bell rang each year. Having kids of my own and working in a school now, I must admit I still feel it — maybe for different reasons — but there is still that sense of adventure that lurks at the start of each summer.

For you, this year truly is the final bell. It’s the endless summer. Social media is filled with photos of you in your caps and gowns. Smiles are plastered across your faces and invincibility twinkles in your eyes. Many of you are heading off to college, while some will opt to go find jobs. You will become our next generation of doctors, teachers, farmers, politicians, steelworkers, lawyers, carpenters, and accountants. The world needs all of these and one is no better than another — remember that. You “kids” will be taking care of the rest of us just a few years down the road. And believe me, kids, the years will go fast. So fast.

I don’t know much, but I’ve managed to figure out a few things along the way. I’d like to offer you some simple advice. I’ll keep it short, as I know you have better things to do:

1. Advance your education beyond high school. Whether it’s a certificate from a trade school or an advanced degree from a university, education gives you power and promotes the freedom to change jobs and careers. Do it now, because going back to school when you have a wife, kids, a job, and other responsibilities is really hard (trust me). Take your education seriously.

2. Happiness isn’t expensive. Yes, you need to make some money to reach a certain level of happiness and to give you and your family some opportunities. But be very aware there is much more to life than striving to “be rich” and possessing material things.

3. Despite everyone telling you who and what to be, please do what makes you happy. You may not even have a clue yet what you want to do with your life. That’s okay. You may think you’ve figured it out, then change your mind. That’s okay, too. Whatever you end up being, be a great one. Trying to be your best self will make your life better in many ways.

Look, kids, I know you’re not really paying attention. I’m trying to give advice to 18 year olds who already know everything. I used to be as smart as you all are… If nothing else, remember that regardless of our age, we are all writing our own stories. My generation has already written many chapters, and you may be searching for the right words to get started, but none of our stories are complete. No matter how much or how little we have written, no matter how many failures, hardships, and disappointments we face along the way — and there will be many — as long as we are alive, we get to keep writing. So make your stories long, fill them with love and kindness, include many crazy and wonderful adventures, and — most of all — make sure you keep writing until you are happy with the ending. It’s never too late for any of us to change our tale.

Now get out there and make a difference. Each one of you can alter the world in at least some tiny yet amazing way. We are counting on you. 

Sincerely,

A Friend

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Photo Credit: Audrey Bowers

There’s a good chance that you haven’t heard about today being National Teacher Appreciation Day, which is a shame and a bit ironic. I’ve been working as a substitute teacher all school year. I’ve been to a number of different schools, and have interacted with many teachers. What have I learned? We are so lucky to have teachers, and should never take them for granted.

The majority of uninformed people seem to think teachers have it pretty easy. They mostly babysit all day and get summers off. Sure, they don’t make much, but why should they? If you fall into this category, let me try to enlighten you a bit.

Being a teacher is a largely thankless job. A teaching degree with a state teaching certification usually requires more than four years of college (without a Master’s Degree, which is highly recommended), classrooms are typically too full, resources are almost always very limited (many teachers buy classroom supplies with their own money and are not reimbursed), oh and yes, the pay is not very good. So bad that many work a second job in the summer.

Teachers are educators, mentors, and friends. Sometimes they are more involved than parents in their students’ lives. They spend evenings and weekends planning lessons and grading papers. They deal with bullies, offer a shoulder to cry on, break up fights, inspire our next generation, and get vomited on. Teachers are expected to keep students in line and well-behaved, yet routinely get harassed by uninformed parents for mistreating their kids. It’s all in a day’s work. Oh, and the pay is not very good.

How bad is the pay? Depending on the source, an average elementary school teacher makes about $44,000 a year. To put that in perspective, let’s look at the average pay of a few other professions:

Accountant – $66,000

Physical Therapist – $82,000

Chef – $53,000

Computer Systems Analyst – $86,000

Podiatrist (yes, a foot doctor) – $121,000

Cartographer (correct, a map maker) – $61,000

Teachers are largely responsible for preparing our children for adulthood, yet they make significantly less than a cartographer. By the way, no one with a cell phone uses a map anymore.

I ask many of the teachers I meet if they like what they do. Almost all of them say yes. Not one has ever said they like their job because they get the summer off. They don’t usually mention that they wish the pay was better (although I know they do). Most admit it can be very frustrating. However, I can’t think of an instance where a teacher hasn’t mentioned that their job is rewarding.

I was talking to a younger, male teacher about a month ago. “I could go make a lot of money and probably still enjoy my job — maybe even like it more,” he said. “But I’m doing this because I have a chance to make these kids’ lives a little better.” I believe this to be how most teachers feel, and think it helps define the type of person that most teachers are. As a father of two school-aged children, it certainly makes me feel a little more at ease.

Teaching may be an underpaid, largely thankless profession, but teachers seem pretty happy to me. They should be, they have the opportunity to genuinely make the world better. On National Teacher Appreciation Day — and every other day — I’d like to offer a very sincere “thank you.”

My son starts middle school tomorrow.  This truly seems impossible, as I have such a vivid recollection of trying to console my sobbing wife after we dropped him off at daycare for the first time.  That was nearly twelve years ago.  I know from experience and from the words of people older and wiser than me that time isn’t going to slow down any.  On the contrary, it will most likely seem to accelerate.  If I had the middle school years to do over (and I’m glad I don’t), these are five things I would want to consider, so I will share them with my son.  I’m sure he won’t want to listen, but between the eye-rolling and sighing, maybe something will stick.

1.  Don’t take things too seriously:  Despite what you might hear, there really is no “permanent record” at your age.  You are going to make mistakes, make bad choices, and make a fool of yourself.  Don’t beat yourself up; learn to laugh at yourself instead.  If you do this, it will be much harder to be hurt when others laugh at you — and they will.  When you stumble, make it part of your dance.  When you fall down, pick yourself up (with a chuckle).

2.  Be yourself:  I know this will sound crazy, but please don’t worry about being one of the “cool” people.  Being yourself, instead of trying to be someone you think people want you to be, is one of the secrets to finding true happiness.  You are a great person, and don’t let anyone tell you differently.  By being yourself, you are giving people a great opportunity — the chance to know the real you.  By the way, many of the so-called nerds, dorks, freaks and geeks will grow up to be much more interesting than the current “in crowd.”

3.  Be kind and compassionate to everyone:  Kids will be mean, but you don’t have to be.  Everyone you meet will be worried about something, sad about something, and will have problems similar to yours — or possibly much worse.  Set an example by treating these people the way you want to be treated.  It’s just that simple.  Remember that the best way to get rid of enemies is by becoming their friends, and that the best kind of popularity is to be admired for your kindness.  People will notice kindness.

4.  You can talk to me and Mom about anything:  Your mom and I are extremely interested in what’s going on in your life.  We want you to be happy to talk to us about all of the good things, and to be totally comfortable coming to us with any questions or problems.  You will go through times when you feel like there is no one to listen, but we are always ready and willing.  Yep, we are your parents, so there may be times when we get upset or are disappointed.  Regardless, we will always have your back.  Don’t forget that we were your age — and it wasn’t that long ago.  We had the same questions you will have, and we made the same mistakes you will make.  Let us in.  Please.

5.  Be a kid as long as possible:  High school, dating, driving, getting your first job…  These are all things you’re excited about, I know.  Trust me, though, that one day, which will seem way too soon, you will look back and ask where your childhood went.  For now just have some fun.  Play hard, laugh loud and be silly, ride your bike with no hands, and do cannonballs off the high-dive.  You will have plenty of time to be older, but you will never be younger.  Bottle some of that youth up, however, because the good news is that you are never too old to act young.

Hopefully my son will heed at least some of my advice.  Come to think of it, I should too.  We all should.