Tens of thousands of words appear in the media daily about the fractious state of our nation. But some of the most astute insights I’ve heard lately have come from my students at a local college.
During a recent study of the American Dream in its various iterations over the years, my students quite naturally moved into discussions of the America in which they are pursuing their own “dream.”
These students comprise a diverse tapestry: Some are the first in their families to go to college; some are in the military; some are single parents with full-time jobs; some are immigrants, experiencing American education for the first time. All of them, however, are full of impressions and opinions about America in 2017.
Thoreau once said that “The teacher should seek to be a fellow student with the pupil, and should learn of, as well as, with him.” I am following Thoreau’s wise words; my students’ insights and observations about contemporary life in our country show me the real concerns.
There was the student who, during our discussion of the importance of creating factual professional resumes, noted that a president who promotes his self-importance by showcasing a fake Time magazine cover with his photo doesn’t set the bar very high for honesty for those learning to promote themselves in creating their own resumes.
Another student who went to public school in a poor district in South Carolina reflected on the Legislature’s lack of action in bringing equity to our state’s schools. In an essay she wrote about this roadblock to achieving the American Dream, she quoted Frederick Douglass, who astutely observed that “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
I was thinking about my students’ insights when I heard the commencement address that U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts gave at his son’s middle school. In it, he admonished the students to take a commonsense look at the world into which they are maturing, and offered advice that has profound implications for all of us as we move through a discomfiting time in our country.
“From time to time in the years to come, I hope you will be treated unfairly, so that you will come to learn the value of justice,” he told the graduates. “I hope you will be ignored so that you will learn better how to listen yourself.” Justice Roberts also suggested that being lonely from time to time instructs people not to “take friends for granted,” and that experiencing pain will cause all of us “to learn compassion.”
The chief justice went on to say, “I wish you bad luck — from time to time — so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life. And understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved, either.”
Understand that your success is not completely deserved, and that the failure of others is not completely deserved, either.
He urged them to connect with others, to respect and appreciate all people whose paths they cross. He advised the graduates, at their next school, to introduce themselves to the people “raking the leaves, shoveling the snow or emptying the trash … to learn their names, smile and call them by name.”
His clear message was one of understanding America’s diverse populace, and the importance of recognizing that everyone shares an equal place within it.
Chief Justice Roberts concluded with a quote from a man he called “one of America’s great philosophers,” Bob Dylan: “May your hands always be busy / May your feet always be swift / May you have a strong foundation / When the winds of changes shift / May your heart always be joyful / And may your song always be sung / May you stay forever young.”
Not bad advice for any of us as we try to regain some of our innocence in the choppy waters of 2017 America.
Ms. Beasley is a Columbia educator; contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.