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What it means to graduate high school

My nephew graduated from high school last week. I was there, and I have to admit it had a bigger impact on me than I expected it to. Besides being proud of him—and I am—it set me thinking about just what it means to graduate from high school.

Let’s look at the numbers.  Graduating from high school means that the graduate has attended no fewer than 12 years of school—more if they attended kindergarten.  Each of those years requires about 180 days of school, and each of those days is about seven hours long.  That means that your graduate spent more than15,000 hours in class. 

They should come out knowing a lot. And they do—sometimes a lot more than they realize.

They began as small fry, barely able awkwardly to palm a pencil, and they graduate (if they’ve paid attention at all) fluent in our language, understanding of our history, and able to speak, on some level, the language of mathematics. 

That’s quite a lot when you think about it.

But there is more. They should graduate knowing the debt they owe to their parents and to their teachers.

One of the great school movie theme songs is “To Sir With Love”.  It reminds us: “But how do you thank someone who has taken you from crayons to perfume? It isn’t easy, but I’ll try.”  That’s not a bad way to say it.

I also attended the baccalaureate service, and while I was there I was reminded of just how much I owe to my teachers. I saw one of my former high school teachers. She grabbed me and introduced me with “He’s one of mine.” And I was, too.  She taught me things that mattered.

Good teachers teach a lot more than just their subjects. They are good examples, they teach us how to interact—how to be.  What a gift.

We owe a debt to every teacher we ever had. And it is a debt that we can never repay.  All of them taught us something, gave us a new way of thinking, woke up a tendril in our ever-resistant brain—they made us think. And no learned skill is more necessary.

What do you have when you graduate?  If you are lucky you walk away with two things.

First, you walk away with the ability to think for yourself. One of the best teachers my daughters ever had was someone who held a political viewpoint that was different than theirs.  But they didn’t know that. All they knew was that he presented both sides of the issues fairly, and he taught them how to think through issues for themselves.  Another teacher—the one my daughters routinely describe as the best math teacher they ever had—was nearby.  And what is math but the language of logic?  Both of these teacher gave great gifts.

Second, you walk away with the ability to learn, which is the ability to handle things you’ve never encountered before.  You can’t possibly come out of any school knowing all that you need to know. But you can come out equipped to learn on your own. And that may be the greatest gift education can give you. And after all, isn’t that the definition of your future?

So, what do you have when you graduate from high school?  You should be on the path from being an inchoate newcomer to becoming a fully-formed and mature person, able to hold down your place in a civil society. No one grows into adulthood without bearing a responsibility to be mature, to act like an adult, to hold down a job, to be a positive influence, not just a placeholder.  And in holding up your end of the deal, you get to help form the next generation.

See how this works?

You thought your teachers have a job; they knew they had a profession. You thought your teachers taught a subject; they knew they had a calling.

Leave knowing that you owe them.  And repay that debt by what you do with your education.  After all, that is what they wanted for you.

Yes, we are proud when a former teacher calls us “one of theirs”.   Mrs. Pitts, thank you for that.

And if you are a new high school graduate, you could do a lot worse than to live a life that one day allows others to recognize the influence you’ve had on them. 

Why not make that your goal?

Now—go live your life.  Make us proud.

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