June 12, 2017
Dear Class of 2017,
One of the sweetest things about teaching seniors is the chance to spend a second year with some of you who had been in my sophomore English class. I’m always stunned by the development that happens in just a year or two. And so on August 17, 2016, I felt a giddy excitement to meet you all–some older and wiser than sophomore year, but also, strangely, still the kid who had sat here two years ago. Many of you were new to me, a new enigma, new territory entirely.
You folks were the twentieth set of students to spend a year with me, 180 days in the same space at the same time, and as many things that are wrong with education, there is something magical that happens when a set of people go on a journey together, as we have during your senior year. I hope by this point in my career as a teacher, I’ve finally figured out to help you help yourself: to show you how to read and write the world, as my friend Sarah Zerwin says, or at the least read and write your world, since we can only really know our own.
You know I love stories, and so here is one last story from me. My senior year of high school I had the gift of a transformative English teacher, Billy Kreigh. Billy had been my journalism teacher my sophomore and junior year, and I adored her. My senior year, I spent four periods a day with her: newspaper, yearbook, teacher’s assistant, and Honors English.
Billy Kreigh was–is–a force of nature. In the early 1990’s, when I was her student, she always wore some sort of long tribal-looking skirt paired with a bright tunic, bold handmade jewelry, and her signature short haircut that framed her big eyes and sharp cheekbones. Her red fingernails were daggers, and she used them to hypnotize us as she gestured and pointed and generally kept us under her spell. This all makes her sound terrible, but the truth was, Mrs. Kreigh was the coolest teacher, writer–perhaps coolest person–that I had ever met. I’d do back flips for this woman.
Despite my love of English, of literature and writing and talking about literature and writing, it may surprise you to know that I got a D in Honors English. I was too busy writing for the newspaper and editing the yearbook to worry about silly things like Honors English homework. But I read all the books, and wrote obsessively, as I do now, in an agonized rapture, and Billy still awarded me the top department award for English my senior year. She knew, as I do, that there was more to life than letter grades.
On the last day of classes in my senior year in high school–May 1993–Billy sat before our senior honors English class and shocked me to my core–her hallmark move–one final time. She passed out a one page copy titled “The Desiderata of Happiness” and read it out loud to us.
Desiderata of Happiness
Go placidly amid the noise and haste,
and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender
be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly;
and listen to others,
even the dull and the ignorant;
they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others,
you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your own career, however humble;
it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs;
for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is;
many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be cynical about love;
for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment
it is as perennial as the grass.
Take kindly the counsel of the years,
gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune.
But do not distress yourself with dark imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Beyond a wholesome discipline,
be gentle with yourself.
You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.
Therefore be at peace with God,
whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations,
in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world.
Strive to be happy.
Max Ehrmann, Desiderata, Copyright 1952.
Now, in the Bay Area in 2017, this doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in the Bible Belt where I grew up, in the 90’s, this flirted with heresy. (And if you don’t know what “heresy” means, look it up.) Billy had already gotten in trouble when she assigned The Color Purple, which was subsequently banned (which backfired, of course–the school board only ended up making it the forbidden fruit, eaten by the class core and all), and stirred up more unrest when she had us read Jung and Campbell. That line, “Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be” — that line was earth shattering. What? You mean there was a choice? I thought.
A few minutes before the final bell of our school careers, she also made two requests. One, that we keep in touch, and two, that from then on out, we call her Billy. We were all adults together now, she said. Whoa. Call her Billy? I am an ADULT?
Billy’s bold request served as a rite of passage for me. I didn’t swim through a dangerous underwater tunnel like the protagonist in Doris Lessing’s famous rite of passage story “Through the Tunnel,” but like you, I did swim through the chaos, heartache, and joy of high school, and on the other side, the world beyond was mine, as it is now yours.
In September of that following year, I put the Desiderata up in my dorm room at the University of Evansville, and whenever I felt overwhelmed and beleaguered, which was nearly every day, I would read it. Sometimes I would call Billy on an especially bad day. And during one of the hardest periods–when she heard I was thinking about dropping out of college after I got pregnant my sophomore year–she called me, and told me she’d kick my ass if I did. I didn’t drop out, and graduated in 1997 with both a BFA in Creative Writing and a toddler (now 21!)–a pretty good deal, over all. Billy has been my trusted friend and confidant for these last 24 years.
Fast forward a few decades. I was the senior English teacher now, and I had a plan for your last day. On Wednesday, May 31st, I dragged myself to school, feeling terrible. I had gotten no sleep, my bones hurt, my mind wouldn’t stop racing, and I was wired and exhausted and overwhelmed. I knew I was sick, and that I should call for a sub, but the idea of missing my last day with you, of missing the final and the grand gesture I had planned (to give you an earlier draft of this letter that I had stayed up all night writing, with the Desiderata and a notebook for you to keep writing your life story) convinced me to tough it out.
Halfway through 3rd period, I knew it was impossible. I was SUPER sick, and I stuck on a movie to distract my freshmen while I called colleagues and friends to come cover my class and drive me to ER, where they ended up admitting me to the hospital, and putting me off work through June 12th.
Your classmate Shiri saw me crying in the hallway on my way out, and she was worried, and very sweet to me. And yes, I was crying because I felt terrible, but I was mostly crying because I was devastated to miss that last day with you all, and disappointed not to be able unveil my own Billy Kreigh style rite of passage.
On Saturday, June 10, health much restored, I came to gather my freshman finals to grade and make some order in my classroom. On the tiny table that serves as my messy desk, I found the beautiful box of notes and pictures from you, and I can’t tell you how much your words meant to me. That box of notes on crazy donut-post-it notes is probably the best gift other than my own children I’ve ever been given. Thank you.
You’ll be glad to know that I am feeling much, much better, and I’ve learned an important lesson you’ll need to remember next year: SLEEP, rest, relax, have fun–it’s critical for your health. Those all night study sessions are a sham and will eventually catch up with you.
Lucky for me, we have the magic of the written word. And even though I will always be sad that I wasn’t there for our last day together, our last party, I’m always here for you, people.
So here is my request:
Keep in touch, please. I will always be interested in your life. And please, from here on out, call me Kate.
We are all adults together now.
Facebook: Kate Inskeep Flowers