Some sweet, and cynical goals for graduates

By Joe Nathan

Somewhere between Marina Keegan, friends and Bret Stephens, there’s something worth saying to graduates.  While I’m not yet sure what I’ll tell the Higher Ground Academy graduates and their families this weekend, here’s what I’m thinking.

Part of this is influenced by Marina Keegan.  Last month this 22-year-old graduated from Yale.  A fine writer, campus activist, and person in love, she already had a great job lined up at the New Yorker magazine.

In a recent column for the Yale News, she wrote, “I’m scared of losing this web we’re in. This elusive, indefinable, opposite of loneliness… But let us get one thing straight: the best years of our lives are not behind us….We’re so young. We’re so young. We’re 22 years old. We have so much time.”

She concluded, “We’re in this together, 2012. Let’s make something happen to this world.”

Keegan was right about a lot.  But she did not have “so much time.”  Five days after graduating, she died in a car crash.   She was wearing a seat belt.

As I read her words, I wept.  I cried for her, her family, and for the good that she probably would have done.  Perhaps in death, she will help others.  Her final essay is here:

http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2012/may/27/keegan-opposite-loneliness/

After reading about Keegan, I talked with a few friends (via Facebook, what else), and was struck by how often the following came up:  “Don’t worry so much and trust your gut, learn from your failures.” “All difficult situations will pass and there is a lesson to be learned from them and silver lining within them.”   “The best is yet to come.”

One person quoted Kahlil Gibran, “Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls, the most massive souls are seared with scars.”

If Keegan represents the sweet, and my friends represent the hopeful, then Bret Stephens represents the cynical.   A columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Stephens recently wrote, “Allow me to be the first one not to congratulate you. Through exertions that—let’s be honest—were probably less than heroic, most of you have spent the last few years getting inflated grades in useless subjects in order to obtain a debased degree.”

He concluded, “…if you can just manage to tone down your egos, shape up your minds, and think unfashionable thoughts, you just might be able to do something worthy with your lives. And even get a job. Good luck!”

To share some of Stephens’ cynicism, do you remember anything from graduation speeches you’ve heard?  I don’t.

But hoping to touch some folks, I’ll read Keegan, a few friends and Stephens.  And then I’ll conclude:

As Keegan’s life, and death show us, we don’t know how long we have.  How will you spend your days, however many there are?  I hope you find love, taking time for friends and family.

Find something that you really care about, and join with others to make a difference.  Set a few goals. Try hard to avoid being stubborn.  Yes, stand for something.  But if you want others to listen to you, recognize that those who disagree with you sometimes are at least partially right.

And seek always the company of people who believe that the world can be better.  They’re right.  You can be a part of making it so.

-Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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