As a high school teacher, I send nearly 200 kids off into the world every year to figure out what they want out of life and how to carve out their place in it.
But if I’ve merely taught them the finer points of the two subjects I teach (for those wondering: economics and civics), I believe I’ve failed to prepare them for their futures.
With that in mind, the following words are a more polished version of the closing comments I make on the last day of class every year (I’ve been doing this for about a decade now).
Well, this is it! I want you to know that I truly believe that what I’ve taught you this year is vitally important. There is measurably more suffering in the world when even well-meaning governments impose bad economic policy on a nation.
Real people suffer because of unintended consequences from good-hearted, but economically foolish decisions. The less you and I are ignorant of basic economic principles, the more we can hold politicians’ feet to the proverbial fire.
To my civics students, we can start to lose the blessings of democracy and freedom when we are ignorant of the apparatus, structure and architecture that supports it. When we change too much of the fundamental structure that creates and sustains it, we can’t be too surprised when the thing it supports starts to fade or falter.
The Most Important Thing
Having said this, if you were to one day move in next door to my family, I would not care whether you could tell a supply curve from a demand curve or knew the difference between a filibuster and a gerrymander.
But I would care deeply about the kind of person you are. Never sacrifice your integrity at the altar of better grades or more money. Never allow your character to suffer by taking short cuts in the process of achieving academic or professional goals.
Always be sure that while you work hard to earn degrees and start businesses and establish your professional lives and build families, that who you most fundamentally are at your core is not sacrificed for other pursuits. Make who you are as a person the most important project you ever work on. In fact, becoming the best human being you can become will more profoundly and more permanently affect every other part of your life than anything else you could possible pursue or achieve.
Now, I know that some of you likely started your high school experience with high expectations, or perhaps entered my class assuming a certain outcome only to find reality a bit different than the vision you had coming in.
The difference between those who find life a wonderful adventure and those who find it an uninviting burden is in the central message best expressed in a poem by Dee Groberg.
“Quit! Give up! You’re beaten!” they shout at me, and plead.
“There’s just too much against you now, this time you can’t succeed.”
And as I start to hang my head in front of failure’s face,
My downward fall is broken by the memory of a race.
And hope refills my weakened will, as I recall that scene,
For just the thought of that short race rejuvenates my being.
They all lined up so full of hope, each thought to win that race.
Or tie for first, or if not that, at least take second place.
And fathers watched from off the side, each cheering for his son,
And each boy hoped to show his dad, that he would be the one.
The whistle blew, and off they went, young hearts and hopes afire,
To win and be the hero there was each young boy’s desire.
And one boy in particular, whose dad was in the crowd,
Was running near the head, and thought, “My dad will be so proud!”
But as he speeded down the field across a shallow dip,
The little boy who thought to win, lost his step and slipped.
Trying hard to catch himself, his hands flew out to brace,
And mid the laughter of the crowd, he fell flat on his face.
So down he fell and with him hope. He couldn’t win it now.
Embarrassed, sad, he only wished to disappear somehow.
But as he fell, his dad stood up and showed his anxious face,
Which to the boy so clearly said, “Get up and win that race!”
He quickly rose, no damage done – behind a bit, that’s all,
And ran with all his mind and might to make up for his fall.
So anxious to restore himself to catch up and to win,
His mind went faster than his legs. He slipped and fell again.
He wished then he had quit before with only one disgrace.
“I’m hopeless as a runner now, I shouldn’t try to race.”
But in the laughing crowd he searched, and found his father’s face,
that steady look that said again, “Get up and win the race!”
So up he jumped to try again, ten yards behind the last,
“If I’m to gain those yards,” he thought, “I’ve got to move real fast.”
Exceeding everything he had he gained back eight or ten,
But trying so to catch the lead, he slipped and fell again.
Defeat! He lay there silently, a tear dropped from his eye.
“There is no sense in running more. Three strikes, I’m out, why try?”
The will to rise had disappeared, all hope had fled away.
So far behind, so error prone, a loser all the way.
“I’ve lost, so what’s the use,” he thought, “I’ll live with my disgrace.”
But then he thought about his dad, who soon he’d have to face.
“Get up!” an echo sounded low, “Get up, and take your place.
You were not meant for failure here, get up and win the race.”
“With borrowed will get up,” it said, “You have not lost at all.
For winning is no more than this: to rise each time you fall.”
So up he rose to run once more, and with a new commit,
He resolved that win or lose, at least he wouldn’t quit.
So far behind the others now, the most he’d ever been,
Still he gave it all he had, and ran as though to win.
Three times he’d fallen stumbling, three times he’d rose again,
Too far behind to hope to win he still ran to the end.
They cheered the winning runner, as he crossed the line first place.
Head high and proud and happy, no falling, no disgrace.
But when the fallen youngster crossed the finish line last place,
The crowd gave him the greater cheer for finishing the race.
And even though he came in last, with head bowed low, unproud,
You would have thought he won the race to listen to the crowd.
And to his dad, he sadly said, “I didn’t do so well.”
“To me you won!” his father said, “You rose each time you fell.”
And when things seem dark and hard, and difficult to face,
The memory of that little boy helps me to win my race.
For all of life is like that race, with ups and downs and all,
And all you have to do to win is rise each time you fall.
“Quit! Give up! You’re beaten!” they still shout in my face.
But another voice within me says: “GET UP AND WIN THE RACE!”
We all have finish lines in our lives with hopes and aspirations of crossing them successfully. But life has a way of challenging us, mixing things up and turning us upside down.
It is in those moments when life slaps us hardest that we determine whether our lives become an excuse for throwing our hands up in the air and giving up, or redoubling our efforts and finishing the race.
It is my hope and prayer that each of you will find success in life, whether you define it as academic and professional accomplishment, in raising a wonderful family or pursuing a meaningful life of happiness, that you never quit, that even if all you can muster is an occasional baby step, that you keep pressing forward.
We all have finish lines in our lives. What matters most is not so much when we cross them, but that we keep running the race toward them.
I’ll miss you. You have left me a better person for the people you are and the privilege you’ve given me to have played a small role in the unfolding of your lives. I wish you the best life has to offer. Come back and visit from time to time to update me on how things are going. I expect to hear great things about you over the years. You have left an imprint on this teacher’s heart.
Now go find what moves you and change the world!