Flashback – My Speech to the 8th Grade Graduating Class

Okay, this requires a bit of explanation.

I’ve been looking through lots of old files and stories. It’s been encouraging to see what I’ve written in the past, especially since I’ve been in bit of a dry spell. (Or, at least, I feel like I haven’t gotten done what I would like to have got done.) Here’s what I (re)discovered:

When you write, you reveal who you are and what you believe. One story won’t reveal it, but as you collect more and more pieces, what you really are will come through, one way or another.

So, when I discovered this speech I wrote for the 8th grade graduation of some students I taught, I was pleased. It was like I was reminding myself what I believe. And, really, I might write much the same thing today. In fact, I had a similar thought on Facebook just a few weeks ago.

For me, writing really is trying again and again to communicate those few truths that motivate me–or, rather, communicate the part of the Truth that I am most able to understand.

Here’s a copy of the text, typos and all, if any are interested.

~~~

[INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS]

I’m honored to be up here tonight. I don’t often do much public speaking, so if I look too much at my paper and not out into the audience, it’s not because I don’t like you. To use my classic excuse, I’m a writer, not a speaker. I’ve always liked when Moses complained to God that he was unable to speak. But, appropriately enough, he’s credited with writing the first five books of the Bible. So I’ll take that.

I’ve been lucky enough to have the graduating class for two years. I knew them when they were a baby class of three students last spring. Look how they’ve grown. In the two years I’ve taught them, I’ve made them put up with writing essays, poems, stories, plays, more essays, and even listening to Beethoven and watching old science fiction episodes. Now they only have one more thing to put up with—this speech.

Students love to start their essays with a question, so I’ll start my speech with one.

Why do I need to know this? Parents, you’ve heard this, haven’t you? I know every teacher has. Why do I need to know this? The question comes in various forms. How is algebra going to help me in life? If we don’t use the cotton gin anymore, why do I care who invented it? Shakespeare’s dumb, why do we have to read him? He doesn’t make sense. Who cares what makes mammals different than reptiles–just as long as they taste good medium rare?

And, of course, since these are common questions, teachers have invented many clever responses. For instance, there’s the ever popular: “Because it’s on the test.” This works for some of you. There’s also the slightly snarky: “You never know when you might be a contestant on Jeopardy,” to which the students will roll his or her eyes. Then there’s the drawn out explanation, one of my favorites, as my class can probably attest: “Well, you see the cotton gin was a landmark invention that revolutionized the economy of the South. It made cotton cheap to produce, and if it’s cheap to produce, you want cheap labor. And where to you think this cheap labor came from….” And somehow, in the next twenty minutes, you end up talking about your favorite Legos as a child, the consequences of the French Revolution, why you don’t eat pickles, and violence in video games.

But the absolute best answer when a student ask, “Why do we need to know this is very simple.” You simply say, “Because I said so.”

So, eighth graders, you’re here, so you must have listened to us, at least a little. You’ve successfully memorized and compartmentalized all those little facts and figures we kept hounding you about. And, I am fully confident, all of you are up to the challenge of successfully forgetting it all by tomorrow morning. Let me tell you a secret: I remember a little bonfire, and a binder full of papers I’d been saving all year. You can imagine what friends the two became.

But despite my jokes, I know you won’t forget everything. You might forget the difference between xylem and phloem, but you’ll remember friendships and field trips. You might forget what year Jefferson bought the Louisiana Purchase, but you’ll remember the teachers who took an interest in your life or pushed you a little harder than you liked. Maybe there were some papers you “forgot” to turn in, but I believe you will remember the days you spent here at St. John. Because St. John is not just about facts and figures. It is about a person named Jesus Christ, and if you forget everything else during the summer, I hope you won’t forget him.

Let’s return to our original question: “Why do I need to know this?” I don’t think you ask this very often in religion class, because you know why it’s important. If I asked you to write a paper about “Why do we need to know this?”, I would get topic sentences like, “Because God loves me,” “Because Jesus died for my sins,” “Because he’ll take me to heaven.” These are great reasons, and if you used proper five-paragraph format and made sure to be specific, you would have gotten a good grade. But let me tell you another secret. When you ask, “Why do I need to know this?” about anything, there is another answer I’d like to give you, and it is this: Everything worth learning is worth learning because it teaches you about God.

This applies to everything. Why do I need to know math? Because God made the earth orderly. Why do I need to know science? Because God put man in charge of the earth to take care of it. Why do I need to know history? Because God is guiding and working through the events of human history. Why do I need to study literature? Because God communicates through the written language, going so far as to call his Son the Word. And finally, because I’m the writing teacher and this is my speech, why do I need to learn to write essays?

I’ve told you, of course, that you need it for high school, which is true. I’ve also told you, “Because I said so,” which was also true. But the real reason I taught you to write, the reason I drain my red pen dry, is because I want to teach you to think.

Eighth graders, you have more information at your fingertips than any generation before you. I had volumes and volumes of outdated encyclopedias when I was in school. You have Google and Wikipedia. I had five channels on TV. At last count, I think you had approximately ten billion. I remember 5 and a half inch floppy disks; you fill up more gigabytes in a week than I had megabytes on my computer. My cell phone was the size of a football; yours are the size of those little paper footballs. I remember waiting all summer for one movie—Jurassic Park. Now there’s a blockbuster every three days. The outcome of all this is that you are bombarded with images and music and stories and news and opinions every day, non-stop. It is so very easy to be distracted in a world like that. I know. It is so easy to be entertained without being alert. It is so easy to let the world wash over you. But the truth is, most of what you will hear and see in the world are lies, and you need to be able to determine what is right in a world that says that everything is right.

Because the Bible does not say in so many words, “Thou shalt not put flirtatious pictures on Myspace” or “Though shalt not text friends during math class.” There isn’t a chapter in Romans that talks about how many energy drinks are too many or an exhortation in Hebrews detailing the five stages of dating in high school. You don’t get a step-by-step manual on how to love those who cut or purge; you don’t get a voice from heaven telling you exactly what to do in every situation—but you do have Jesus Christ at your side. You do have, as Paul says in First Corinthians, access to the mind of Christ, what he’s thinking, what he desires.

That is why the foundation you received here at St. John is so important—and why it is so important to engage life—to engage the math and science and history and literature and PE of life—and not to let life simply lead you as it will. I want you to live life, to soak up every experience, to invest in every friendship, to consider every sorrow and joy, and to bring Jesus Christ to it all. A live with eyes wide open, fully engaged, with Jesus Christ at your side and the Holy Spirit guiding you, I’m telling you, it’s the only way worth living. It’s the life I know you are all capable of having.

Okay, I’m done with my challenge now. We teachers want to keep teaching even when school’s over. But it’s only because we know that you are great men and women, that you are kings and queens ready to inherit the world. God gave Adam and Eve the right to rule over everything on earth—and now it’s your turn. It’s a great responsibility, but with God’s help, you are able to do it. It is your time to start changing the world. Everything is yours in Christ Jesus. We have equipped you as best as we were able. God will do the rest. It will sad to see you go. I’ll miss you. But God has great things planned for you.

I started teaching five years ago. That class graduated high school on Sunday. As a student might say, why do I need to know this? Because I can only imagine how much learning and loving and growing will take place in those years. That is what we prepared you for, after all, a life where you can stand firm on the foundation of Jesus Christ and embrace the world.

God bless you all. I’m excited for you.

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