For Students


Dear Students,

When I first decided to become a teacher, I thought I would meet a few smart students, a few dumb ones, and a lot in between. Some kids were destined by their genes (or genius) to excel in school. Others would fail no matter what I or they themselves tried to do. Fate was terribly cruel. Or, so I believed.

Many of you, I know, share that faith in academic predestination. "He's getting an A because he's smart," you say. "I could never do so well, even if I tried." You shrug your shoulders and reconcile yourselves to your C's and D's. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but comforting in a way. It leaves a sweet after-taste of complacency.

Well, my students, I've got some discomforting news. I think we've been deceiving ourselves. During the last 20 years, I've taught thousands of kids of all ages. I have yet to meet one who couldn't succeed if he or she really tried. Oh, I've failed more than a few of them. But they weren't dumb. They were lazy, or had allowed themselves to become intellectually weak. Fate had nothing to do with it.

Intellectual ability isn't, like the color of your eyes, determined at birth. Your mind is like a muscle. If you use it a lot, it will become stronger and stronger. But, if you cease to challenge your mind--if, for example, you watch the typical three hours of television a day--soon your mind will become flabby and weak. You'll be unable to accomplish even the most simple of intellectual tasks. You aren't smart or dumb, you see. You work hard, or you do not.

There are students blessed with special abilities, of course. Some are naturally adept at jumping hurdles, while others can effortlessly solve quadratic equations. Nonetheless, all kids can compete both on the track and in the classroom if they try. In fact, I've seen "slow" kids beat an apparently faster or smarter peer time and time again. They just worked a lot harder.

I asked an Olympic trainer once which was more important in order to become an outstanding athlete, natural talent or hard work. A champion, he responded, owes ninety percent of her success to simple blood, sweat, and tears.

I'm sorry, kids. The same is true for you students.

Why do I find myself apologizing for what ought to be good news? You should be overjoyed to hear that fate has not set a limit to your potential. With consistent effort, you can accomplish almost anything you set your mind to do!

Ah, but there's the rub. If your success or failure in school is not fated, then you haven't an excuse. You must choose. You must decide whether or not to accept the responsibility and, above all, the work—years of hard work. It's no wonder that many of you might want to shy away from the challenge, or pretend it just isn't there.

Stop looking for excuses and, as the Nike commercial urges, "Just do it!" Turn off the tube. Pick up a book. Ask questions. Study every night, and take pride in your assignments. It will be difficult at first. Before you know it, though, your mind will be strong, and your success will be easy. People will say it's because you're smart. You and I will know the truth.

Real Men Don’t Fight

Dear Greg,

There was no speaking to you after your fight with Andrew yesterday. I tried to reason with you, but you were still too upset.

That's why you have to stay home for the next three days. Yes, your suspension is a punishment. But above all it's an opportunity for you to mull everything over now that you can think more calmly, more clearly. I hope this letter will help.

In some ways, Greg, I don't blame you for going after Andrew. After what he said, why anybody would want to smash him right in the mouth and shut him up. He sure asked for it.

But what did you really accomplish? I suppose you think you defended yourself, protected your honor. You showed Andrew and everyone else that no one can mess with you.

Actually, you did quite the opposite. First of all, you made it clear that you are still such an insecure person, that a few ugly words are enough to make you lose control.

And you know who was in control? Andrew. Think about it. Why would he have sought you out and said what he did, unless he wanted to make you angry? So when you balled your fists and raised your voice, you behaved exactly the way he hoped you would. He played you like a fiddle.

Of course, a crowd of kids--or should I say a mob?--soon gathered to listen to the music. They weren't your friends, though. Friends would have stopped the fight, and saved you from this three-day suspension. No, the kids who came running were no different than a pack of wild dogs, drooling for blood. (Around a fight, everyone begins to act like an animal.) In other words, they were ravenous for some cheap entertainment, and you provided it.

Worst of all, far from putting Andrew in his place, you raised him on high. How? Well, although everybody knows Andrew is a jerk, you made it clear that what he said and thought really mattered to you. You couldn't have paid him a higher compliment.

Greg, even if you still are glad you punched Andrew, just for the emotional satisfaction of having hurt him (Not a very nice thing to find out about yourself, is it?), you can't continue to respond that way. After all, you're bound to meet scores of unpleasant people during your life. What are you going to do, punch out every idiot you come across? That would mean you'd always sink to the level of the worst fools around you. And eventually you'd end you up in jail.

So the next time somebody tries to goad you into a fight, try a new strategy: Laugh at him. Then turn your back and walk away. That will be the ultimate put-down! Thus, you'll emerge the victor without ever having thrown a punch. And you won't be suspended from school either.

It'll take a lot of self-control, though, a lot of maturity. That's why so few people are capable of doing it. Greg, real men rarely get into a fight. They've learned to solve their problems with their brains, and not their fists.

Take a Big Breath

Dear High School Students,

Why does someone have to die for you to learn how to live?

Last week, I attended Erika’s funeral. Along with her friend, Ed, she died after a terrible traffic accident. Like most of you, I didn't know Erika or Ed. But Erika's mom is my colleague and my friend, so the tragedy was more than just a headline for me.

I wish it could be for all of you, too; because if Erika and Ed's apparently senseless deaths are to have any meaning at all, it will be because you teenagers learn from them. So, for the sake of Erika, Ed, their parents and friends, take heed:

In your eagerness to enjoy all the rights and pleasures of an adult, don't forget the awesome responsibility that accompanies them. For example, with your physical maturity comes the ability to create life; and with your car keys the power to destroy it.

It might have been any of you behind the wheel of the truck that drove Erika and Ed to their deaths. So far, you've been lucky. If you are to remain so, you must recognize that an automobile isn't an exciting toy, to be loaned around for all to try. It's a weapon more deadly than any handgun. The next time you grip a steering wheel, remember you have the lives of all of us in your hands.

Also, recall that you yourself are not immortal. Psychologists say it's normal (but dangerous) for you to believe you are exempt from the consequences of your silly, thoughtless deeds. “It can't happen to me,” you say. That's exactly what Erika and Ed thought as they climbed into the back of the truck and, just that once, didn't wear seatbelts. Perhaps now you'll realize that life is for real, and shows no mercy. Often you don't get a second chance.

Erika's parents placed many tender letters of love in their daughter's coffin. The letters were such beautiful, and yet terribly sad gestures. They expressed all the praise and affection Erika's friends had never gotten around to saying while Erika was still alive. What a shame!

Fate is fickle, you know, and might have chosen one of your friends instead. Take a moment today to think of those you love, but take for granted. Imagine all the wonderful things you'd want to say to them in a letter if they were to be suddenly taken away. Then write and send that letter now. I think Erika and Ed would like that.

There's one last thing I urge you to ponder: When Erika's friends gave some short, emotional eulogies at the funeral, they said things like, “She had such a sunny smile!” and “I could always count on her!” No one mentioned stylish clothes, a slim figure, or a flashy car, even though our TV-culture claims they are so terribly important. At a grave we recall what really matters.

The trouble is that you teenagers too easily forget the lessons of death. It seems a youngster has to die each year for you to pause, and remember. (Some of you, like the two who rode to Erika's funeral in the back of a pick-up, don't get it even then!) That's why I wanted to write you about Erika and Ed. I don't want to bury any more of you.

So, take a deep breath. Celebrate life. Cherish each other. And please be careful.

The Math of Hoop Dreams

It's time for a very important math lesson. Too many foolish (Dare I say deceived?) young men fill their heads with dreams of college scholarships, and maybe even fabulous careers as professional athletes.

They better think again. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, their chances are awfully slim. In fact, high school football players graduating this spring stand only a 6.6 percent chance--about one in fifteen--of ever making it on a college football team. And just 3.3 percent of those fortunate few--about one in thirty--will earn a scholarship. In other words, your average high school football player has only a two-tenths of one percent chance of earning a college scholarship! Which, by the way, is the same chance he has of ever making it on a professional team.

The statistics are even more daunting in basketball where, for example, only about five hundredths of one percent of graduating high school basketball players will ever play professionally. So much for hoop dreams.

As the N.C.A.A. itself understates, “Based on these figures, the odds of a high school student-athlete making a professional team are much smaller than generally believed. An individual would be well-advised to concentrate at least as much on academics, using athletics as a vehicle to get a college education rather than depending on college as a route to a professional career. Even those who do become professional athletes have an average career span of only three to four years, and then they have to return to the `real' world.”

I wonder, though, are any kids truly “well-advised” to use “athletics as a vehicle to get a college education”? Most big-name universities fail to graduate even half their so-called “student-athletes.” National champion Nebraska graduates only 53% of its players; Florida only 42%. It's a national scandal. At least, it should be.

Of course, no one similarly deceives young women with impossible dreams of athletic careers. Nonetheless, many of them continue to deceive themselves, believing that a great education isn't as important for them. After all, they can always rely on their husbands to take care of them.

Another math lesson is in order. The current divorce rate in California approaches fifty percent. And in most of those cases, it's the women who end up taking care of the children--alone. Yes, alone, because about half of the so-called “fathers” are delinquent in their alimony and child-support. (Another national scandal.) Now more than ever it is essential that young ladies earn a college degree.

It seems to me that the only kids--boys or girls--who are “well-advised” are those whom we urge to give up their pipe dreams and to hit the books hard. There's no glory in education, but it's still a youngster's best bet for a good life--no matter how you work the math.

To High School Graduates

I imagine you are experiencing a kaleidoscope of contradictory emotions: Surprise that your four years in high school have so quickly gone by, and sorrow that they must now come to an end; joy at celebrating your many achievements, and excitement--perhaps even some fear--for all the challenges and adventures waiting in your future. I hope you also feel a tremendous gratitude for your parents and teachers who, by their love, their sacrifice, made this graduation possible.

You may not want to admit it, but you are their creations. The adults in your lives have made most of the important decisions for you during the past eighteen years. Thus, they have molded and shaped you, and, for better or worse, made you who you are today.

Not any more. Now you too are adults, finally free to continue creating yourselves. Where will you go? What will you do? And, above all, who will you be? These, now, are your choices.

That is why I need to give you one, last homework assignment, perhaps the most important one you'll ever undertake. I want you to write your own epitaph.

This might seem a strange moment to speak of your inevitable deaths. But, like your fleeting high school years, your young lives too will come to an end one day. So ask yourselves: What do you want your family and friends to say of you, as they struggle to find meaning in your brief tenure on Earth? ``Here lies Amber. She....'' She what? Now, when you are at the crossroads of life, is the perfect time to consider your final destination.

I won't presume to offer any suggestions myself. But I cannot resist passing on some wisdom from three sages whose epitaphs we all might envy.

First, consider Socrates' advice: ``The unmediated life is not worth living.'' Graduation is not the end of your education. Your diploma is merely a license to learn, to continue teaching yourselves. Socrates would urge you to read widely, take long, solitary walks in the quiet evening, and ponder life's mysteries.

Next, hearken to Albert Einstein, who wrote, ``We can find meaning in life, short and perilous as it is, only by devoting ourselves to society.''

Today, another 40,000 people will die of starvation--most of them children. During your lifetime, the population of the world will double, increasing by more than five billion people--all of them desperately poor. Meanwhile, the last of the rain forest will perish. As you compose your epitaph, please imagine that you will have put your education to good use, and somehow left the world better than you found it.

But beware. If you really try, if you truly care, you will experience anxiety, heartache, and terrible disappointment. The poet Carl Sandburg, however, would offer you one refuge from despair: ``Laughter is medicine to weary bones.'' Find joy in simple, silly things. And laugh. Often. It will keep you young, and provide both you and those around you reason to hope.

And so graduates, now that you are masters of your destiny, what sort of epitaph will you envision for yourselves? Write it now with pen and paper. Then write it every other day of your life with your words and your deeds.

I hope you write something like this: ``Here lies Amber. She thought deeply. She served selflessly. She laughed heartily. And we'll miss her.''