Why not...

My last of twenty-seven years in the secondary classroom, my baby just now in college, a government and economy looking like something out of Duck Soup, a pituitary tumor, chronic migraines... Hell, why not write a blog?

(My students are now gone. I'm now a civilian and really no longer a "lame duck." I hope the readers of Mama Duck will come to my new blog for some new writing and new directions. My new blog is at: Writing Isle to Isle.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Address to the Class of 2012

This past Saturday, my husband and I were honored to be chosen as the graduation speakers for the graduating Class of 2012. The following is the speech we gave. Because it is a tandem speech, yellow highlights indicate when I spoke, and the regular text indicates when he spoke.

We are honored to stand before you today—Class of 2012, relieved parents, bursting-with-pride grandparents, fellow educators, administration, school board members, and this supportive and generous community. It’s your combined efforts that are celebrated today in a ceremony in which graduates dress in identical robes and mortars, sit politely through speeches, toss those identical hats, and then head off in different directions. We’re about to toss our hats as well.

We’re all on an edge of an unknown sea. Our hats are off, we’re kicking off our comfortable shoes, the known routines and grounded connections, and wading barefoot into uncertain times, where we’ll take a deep breath and dive into our new selves. It’s both scary and exhilarating. But we’re island people and we can swim. And if we can’t swim, we can always catch the next ferry.

For the past several months the air has snapped electric with advice about your futures. You’ve waited anxiously for college acceptance letters, and then heard your parents gasp when they saw the actual price of next year’s education. And all the while you wished the future would just hurry up and arrive and the nightly Crime and Punishment pages would just… disappear. We’ve had similar experiences and feelings—unsolicited advice about what we should or shouldn’t do with our lives once we’re done with teaching, and so many weekends I wished that stack of papers to grade would just… disappear. When asked “how many days until graduation?” most of us had no idea, for we were frankly too busy with our senior years.

But now it’s here. You’re graduating. So I guess we retirees are too in a sense. And while it took you a cool 12 years to meet that day, it took Becky Shigley 39 years.  Greg McElroy presided over an award winning school newspaper for 18 years before graduating today. Cindy has been at it for 27 years. I’ve been a perpetual junior in high school for 29 years, and this year I’m finally a senior. You’re obviously far more efficient than we are.

Not only is this class more efficient, but they are truly wonderful thinkers. In fact, the Class of 2012 epitomizes the habits of mind, or the attributes that human beings display when they behave intelligently.

Habits of mind is the name for a new curricular concentration our school district is taking, one in which learners nurture 16 different characteristics that are taught, focused, articulated, and practiced. Relax. We’re not going through all sixteen in this speech. But we thought we’d share some examples of how the Class of 2012 has exhibited some of the more important habits of mind.

The first habit of mind we’d like to talk about is persistence, and let’s be honest, what commencement address would be complete without some reference to persistence?

You have the persistence of a rowing team that is willing to daily plant your bottoms in a cold, damp shell, rain or shine, awaiting the coxswain’s orders that will take you your 12-16,000 meters for the day. And if you’re very successful, you’ll be at nationals instead of your own high school graduation.

It’s the persistence of the senior wrestler, who escapes from the defensive position on the mat, gets two points for a reversal, and after sweat, exhaustion, and strategy ends the match pinning the opponent who took him (or her) down at the start. Persistence.

It’s the dogged Riptide editors and reporters whose stories speak a bold truth to power.

It’s the “Can’t I get just another ½ point on this Marbury v. Madison written response? I mentioned the Judiciary Act of 1789 in the third part…okay, not the second part, but in the third part where I mentioned judicial review too…just another ½ point?” (…The lesson here is that persistence doesn’t always lead to more points.)

Persistence is the cast of Legally Blonde practicing their choreography for “Positive” over and over until they get it right; or Erica Walker playing Poulenc’s Sonata for Oboe through God knows how many oboe reeds, or Dylan Basurto practicing the trumpet for various performances until his chops fail. Persistence is what it takes to be good at something. To be really good at something. Getting it wrong and wrong and wrong until you get it right every time.

Another habit of mind is what is known in the education world as metacognition. More simply put, it’s “thinking about one’s thinking.” Metacognition is our ability to know what we know and what we don’t know. Donald Rumsfeld’s famous 2002 comments about the existence of WMD in Iraq offer a standard rubric for understanding Meta-Cognition.  He offered three axioms to explain:

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know, that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we know we don't know.

But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things that we don’t know, we don't know.”

Let’s explore these.

First, there are the Known Knowns- the things we know, we know. “I will have to write interactive notes on this reading assignment.” Or, “I know Camille’s interactive notes will be the most detailed and truly interactive notes I see when I’m stamping readings.”

Neah knows she has one sick tree climbing up her calf. (For the grandparents in the crowd, sick is now a good thing.)

Then, there are the Known Unknowns- These are the things that we know, we don’t know. We are aware of our lack of knowledge in these areas. For example I know I have no idea how to do quadratic equations. Had Poppa Sears been my teacher, perhaps I’d be able to. For the Class of 2012, they faced their own known unknowns when they asked themselves questions like: “How will I manage to pass my first Scored Discussion?” or “Would it be a good idea to go out and get a law degree before I take the AP Gov written response final?” The good thing about this category is that with awareness and Google, we can fix that which we don’t know.

The third Rumsfeldian category is the Unknown Unknowns- Those things that we don’t know, we don’t know. Or to put it another way, unknown unknowns are things we don’t know even exist. You probably weren’t aware, for example, that I have a full-time, two-person secretarial team that works in my classroom at night managing all of my bookkeeping, correspondence, grading, photocopying, and lesson planning. (I trust they’re union.)

But unknown unknowns are what can clobber you in life, and military strategists back to Clausewitz know this. In real life unknown unknowns are the things that follow no rules and are profoundly unfair. They are the spot on the screen that your doctor tells you is breast cancer, or the kind of lung cancer that means your sister won’t be around in five years. Or a financial crisis that cost you a job and a home. Or a midnight car crash, the kind every parent in here fears more than any cancer or financial pitfall. Graduates, there will be unknown unknowns in your lives. You will need somebody close to prop you up when you fold after they hit you. Keep friends and family close.

There’s yet a fourth category, and although Rumsfeld did not include this, it is probably the most relevant of all the combinations. That’s the unknown knowns. Unknown knowns are things we know, but we are either unconscious of or unaware of knowing.

Perhaps they are prejudices that color our reality. Perhaps it is our desire to see our history as a myth, or have it explained in soundbites. It may be looking in a gilded mirror and not seeing the reflection of our own unearned privileges.

Unknown knowns are self-serving. They are the ways in which we can stay numb, stay ambivalent, and remain blind to the plight and needs of others. And the unknown known doesn’t seem to want to do the hard work to get to know itself. Martin Luther King Jr. said “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

But the Class of 2012 is extraordinary in shaking hands with the unknown knowns. When it mattered you have shown a remarkable determination to peel away the myths and stories that offer comfort and safety in order to better understand your world. You seem to innately understand the dangers of ignoring inconvenient truths. You face the unpleasant realities within those truths. You have the skill to recognize the artifice of the frames and you possess the courage to do something about it. And you understand that when you close your eyes to the things you don’t want to see, that human feeling ceases to exist.

This brings us to another habit of mind at which you certainly excel, and that is empathy. Although your country has not given you a lot of recent role models to follow with our coin-operated Congress, the Kardashians, or the “Real” Housewives of New York City, you seem to listen fully to those around you and hear what is said beneath the words that are spoken. You demonstrate a sense of caring and community that comes from an interconnectedness that you obviously feel and extend to others.

Last year when I took a leave of absence to be with my dying sister, you reached out with words of concern and letters of condolence. Your support for me meant that I could be in the moment with Sue knowing that you were helping my substitute provide meaningful instruction. Some of you will remember that the American Studies final was a scored discussion on the Great Depression. Peter Serko painstakingly set up a Skype link for me to watch the group discussions remotely from Connecticut during the final exam schedule with a three- hour difference.  What I saw from an intermittent Internet connection from three thousand miles away was one of the most sophisticated, intelligent seminars about FDR and the New Deal that I have seen from a student discussion in over twenty years of conducting this type of assessment. I have neglected to fully express my appreciation for both your empathy and your commitment to excellence until now. Better late than never.

We’ve both personally experienced your empathy. When you walked into class and I had my sunglasses on with yet another migraine, you would quietly close the door and talk in hushed levels. Thank you for that. You’ve also given support to Amy Dubin during her battle with cancer, and now reach out to Papa Sears as he struggles with his own serious health problems.

Your empathy extends beyond the local. So many of you have expressed anxiety about what you’ve learned this year in Humanities. The rose colored glasses have been removed, and you fear for the future and wonder how you’ll make a difference in our troubled world.

Howard Zinn said “the future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.” Your hearts and your heads are connected. You’ll be okay. You will improve your corner of the world.

Finally, humor is an essential habit of mind. And we’ve loved laughing with you. Real humor starts, we believe, with the ability to recognize one’s own folly. We have to laugh at ourselves. But we also have to continue to find humor in the absurd.

And what could be more absurd than having to come back for three days after your graduation?

Doesn’t this seem like a Daily Show sketch to you?

Just sayin’.

But we are here to graduate. And that is serious business. (We start putting on robes and hats.)

We both say with our robes and hats: So let’s get on with it!

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