Dear Class of 2009, Congratulations, Now Please Leave

07/08/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dear Class of 2009, I said to my 32 senior English students on our last day of class together, for the past 13 years you've come to school five days a week, 8 hours a day, 40 weeks a year.

From the moment you entered kindergarten through tomorrow's graduation ceremony, you've been told how to behave, what to think, how to express yourself. You've been inundated with books, assignments, research projects, some by teachers you respect, some by those you don't like. You learned to adjust to this assault by becoming grinds and sweet-talkers and sometimes by slipping under the radar.

And all these years, the moment you walked in the door at home, the daily interrogation began.
"What did you learn today? Who're you hanging out with? What's your homework?"

You learned to respond to this assault by removing the iPod from your ear, and mumbling, "Good," as you sprinted to your room and shut the door.

My guess, though, is the most valuable lessons you learned in school were not those delivered by teachers or parents, and not those gleaned from books, but lessons you learned before school, and later, standing in the cafeteria lines, lounging on the quad, sitting in the football stands, riding on the bus to school or driving there with your friends.

You learned whom to befriend. Whom to avoid. Who was loyal. Who would repeat your secret the moment you walked away. You learned whom to go to when you needed someone to talk to, someone to lean on, someone to borrow a buck or two from.

You learned the democracy of the schoolyard. You learned that not all African-Americans play dominoes. Not all Persians gel their hair into rigor mortis positions. Not all Latinos play handball at lunch. Not all Asians are studious. And not everyone who's gay is dying to have sex with you.

Between classes you probably learned that a lot of the lessons from home and school, and a lot of those observed on TV, didn't make sense or apply to you, and from now on you'd probably be better off figuring out things for yourself.

I'll tell you what else you learned between classes.

You learned how to enroll in the courses you wanted.

You learned how to avoid the teachers who weirded you out.

You learned how to deal honestly, or not so honestly, with the attendance and counseling offices, with community service, library fines, the dean.

Whatever you learned or didn't learn in the classroom, the fact that you're graduating is proof that in those 13 years you learned at least one valuable life skill -- you learned from all this mandatory schooling how to survive a bureaucracy that sometimes seemed indifferent, that sometimes made you feel you were only a number, or invisible, or that you didn't count.

And wherever life leads you, I promise you will be confronted time and again with bureaucracies like the one you're leaving. Whether it's college or a corporation, the DMV, the military or the IRS, bureaucracies are awaiting you.

And because you've successfully maneuvered your way through this institutional maze, you have, whether you know it or not, learned to accomplish your goals, keeping intact your sanity and wit, and I hope, your feelings of self-worth.

That accomplishment is what assures me that most of you, as soon as you leave this place, are going to be fine.

But remember this:

Every step of the way you'll encounter roadblocks. These usually will take the form of people who don't wish you well, people who don't want you to succeed. And when you come across these folks, and you will, remember that you survived the pettiness of high school, so you can survive just about anything else.

I hope when you leave here you'll find something you care passionately about, if you haven't found that already, and you will pursue that passion for the rest of your life. I hope you have a lot of joy, and I hope that when your days are just about done, you'll look back and honestly say to yourself that you did some good in this world.

Now, Class of 2009, please leave.

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