Thursday, June 10, 2010

Not just another middle school closing

Today was the middle school closing. I haven't written in several months. Today and tomorrow are my last days at Greensboro Day School and I'm feeling emotional about it. In the fall, I'll be at The Cannon School, and I'm thrilled and excited about this opportunity. But before the new adventure begins, today was about saying goodbye. I was honored to be asked to give a talk at the 8th grade closing today. Here's what I wrote, though not necessarily exactly what I said.

I want to assure all the students that this speech has been through multiple drafts using track changes and I’ve done peer and self-rehearsals using Audacity. Earlier this week, I was packing, sniffling a little bit, and going through some of my files. I found a few old academic journals written by 8th grade students during my first year when I taught study skills. Since you guys hadn’t been born yet when I arrived here in 1994, I thought you might find some of what these students wrote interesting. Do you know who the 8th grade math teacher was in 1994? Here’s an excerpt from one journal: August 28th “Math is really easy.” October 9th. I don’t need to say what I got on my math test. All that I’ll say is that it’s lower than my shoe size.” January 22nd “I don’t have a clue what we are doing in math. I think I better go to extra help.” March 4th “I received a 102% on the math quiz on Monday. I’m studying every day now.” You can see that the formula for success in Mrs. Love’s class hasn’t changed much. . .

The classmates of the student who wrote those words are all grown up now, and are older than I was then when I started teaching here. Some of them are even parents themselves. In many ways, I feel like I grew up here myself. This is a special place, and it didn’t take me 16 years to realize that. Originally, my plan to work here for a year while I figured out what I wanted to be when I grew up. Clearly, plans change. I want to thank all the teachers and Dr. Dickinson who, while teaching and guiding the students entrusted to us, were also teaching and guiding me through all these years. I am more grateful than I can say for your kindness, your patience with me, and most of all, for your friendship.

When I look at the gathered 8th graders, I think back not quite so far, but to almost three years ago when this crew entered middle school. You were still children at the beginning of the sixth grade. You were so cute! You didn’t take up nearly as much room and the boys didn’t reek after playing battleball at lunch. Your growth isn’t just physical. Remember your first blogs about reading? When I see the insights you shared on your 8th grade Ning, I’m impressed at your intellectual growth. I’m not surprised, but impressed nonetheless.

Do you remember starting sixth grade by drawing your own illustrations of main ideas from your summer reading books for the bulletin boards? I have a question for the 8th graders—how many of you are geniuses? Raise your hand if you consider yourself an genius.

Now, think way back to kindergarten. Back then if I asked the same question, I bet all of you would raise your hands. If I asked those kindergarteners “who can sing?”—you would have raised your hands immediately and you would have been happy to sing loudly, right then and there, to prove it. A few of you attention seekers might do that right now.

What is it about growing up that makes people forget that they are artists and singers? That they are brilliant? This is not what your teachers and parents want to happen. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, maybe because I have two six year olds and that gives me a chance to see how their minds work, full of nothing but possibilities. Why is it that we forget those possibilities and forget that we are all artists? It is our ideas and our visions that make us artists, not our hands or our voices.

That’s what I want to talk about today, that each and every one of us here, old and young, is an artist. And a brilliant artist at that. In fact, you’re a genius! Seth Godin says that a genius is someone who looks at a problem that others are stuck on and gets the world unstuck. He asks you to think about a few questions: Have you ever found a shortcut that others didn’t see? Have you solved a family argument by thinking up a compromise when everyone else thought they had to keep fighting? Have you seen a way to fix something that wasn’t working? Maybe you have made a connection to someone who seemed completely different from you? Have you done any of these things even once? Then you’re a genius!

Now, how to get the rest of the world to realize this? Last year, a teacher directly asked you “what’s the big idea.” This wasn’t a one time question! You need to keep practicing having big ideas with your artistic, creative genius brain. There’s some interesting research about happiness. It turns we are most satisfied and learn the most when we persist at trying to do things that are challenging for us, not when we just do the things that we find come easily to us.
So ask yourself regularly, “what’s the big idea?” Your English teachers like to call those big ideas themes. Big ideas can scare people. Big ideas are hard to evaluate with a standardized test. A high standardized test score can’t figure out how to stop the flow of oil from the ocean floor. Yet those are the ideas for which this world is most desperate.

You are headed into the world of high school. A world where fitting in and making the grades can seem like the most important things in the world. Please please remember that the person next to you in class is really a genius, disguised as an insecure or bored or possibly even self-centered adolescent. Take her ideas seriously. Encourage him to persist when he is discouraged.

Geniuses. All of you! Don't forget!