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Graduation Speech Given by Jane C. Schaffer - June 15, 2001


This speech is from Jane's papers. It is in our nature as human beings to reminisce at times like this, and I am no exception.  I have a stern face but a soft heart, and  I would like to give you a glimpse of the days of our lives in the classroom.

It is a morning like any other morning.  Nathan wanders in late, mumbles his customary "I overslept," and consults with Jessica about the yearbook.  I'd be disappointed if he didn't.   I eavesdrop while I take roll--Megan hopes her cold will be gone by prom night; Elizabeth's cell phone rings; others are signing yearbooks, writing promises of eternal friendship.

From the deep reaches of the classroom, with Star Trek posters on one wall and another poster in front that says, "This isn't Burger King; you can't have it your way,"  I hear the usual chatter of children, but I'm reluctant to cut it off--for this moment is theirs.  It is the last day before summer, and they are seniors in high school.

Nevertheless, there were details to attend to--giving grade printouts, collecting textbooks, reviewing the graduation schedule.  Here was my final moment with them before they stepped out of my classroom into adulthood.  A teacher wonders just what difference she has made.  Even though Hamlet's decision was worlds away from theirs, will they ever think of him when vacillating between two points of action?  Will they remember Robert Frost's statement that "Home is the place where, when you have to go there/They have to take you in?" Will they think of Brave New World when they read about cloning human beings?

Some will be headed off to college, that crucible of growing up after the short space of summer to experience the magic of  emancipation.  They'll learn a few facts, but they will also learn that they can--go to classes or not go, without nagging, even without notice--eat anything, anytime, without cleaning up afterward --stay up all night, or stay in bed all day--wear the same socks for a month--fall in love and out of love,  all without criticism from parents.

Glorious freedom--they may even find it hurts.  They will learn that clothes don't wash themselves, that a steady diet of pizza is unsatisfactory, that love and life are more complicated than they imagined as the world lay before them.  I want to remind them of some old rules in life:  that everything has its cost, that two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead, that life is what happens when you have other plans. But I would feel a little foolish, like Polonius giving pompous advice to his son.

Teachers play many parts: counselor, parent, Dear Abby advice giver, social worker, coach.  We can be a difficult lot sometimes.  We are the bossiest people I know.  We all have the teacher voice.  We use it to order people around and get a paycheck for it.  We discipline other people's children in public: supermarkets, shopping malls, airplanes, amusement parks.  We figure it's our right and our obligation to humanity to do so.Every teacher knows that the saving grace in this job is the kids.   We deal with everything from the trivial to the traumatic, from "Can I borrow a pencil?" and "Is the cafeteria selling Arby's today?" to "I couldn't do my essay last night--Things aren't so good at home right now."  We hope our classrooms are an oasis in adolescence, islands filled with rigorous academics and relentless caring.   We stay in this profession because of a deep and abiding sense of commitment. I have tried to keep children safe and out of harm's way, to prevent their suffering and allay their fears.  My parents were both alcoholics--in a group this size, a good many of you also grew up in alcoholic homes--and so, high school was a refuge and a sanctuary for me.

My father was in the Navy, and I attended fourteen schools from kindergarten through college.  In high school, I discovered that my French teacher always came in early, and I hung out in her classroom each morning before first period.  Since my goal was not to go home until I had to, I joined the drama club, because drama kids never go home.  School gave me a safe haven when I needed one, and I have tried to repay the debt, to pay it forward, as a teacher.  Appreciation is a wonderful thing, for it makes what is good in others belong to us as well.

But now [. . .,] it's time for me to go.  To my students, past and present, you have been a joy to me for thirty-two years.  And to the seniors, I wish you that same joy in your life's work as I have found in mine.  I cannot imagine a more glorious or more rewarding way to go through this life. Thank you.

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