in this my 65th year of life. Another occasion to take some time and reflect.
My focus today is on changes from my high school years until now. Specifically, I look at what confronts our students, especially our seniors about to go off to college, and compare it with what I remember - I graduated from high school in June of 1963.
What I see troubles me.
In 1963 we were still working on issues of equity - it would be the summer after I graduated that I came to DC for the Civil Rights March. We had hope - ah, that's a word with recent familiarity - that we could change things for the better. And despite the shock of 11/22/63 and the death of our President, we were in the next few years able to achieve many of our hopes - we got laws on Civil Rights, Voting Rights, Housing, and many other things. We saw Medicare and Medicaid enacted into law. We saw the doors of opportunity opening wider for many of our young people.
We lost some of that hope as a result first of Vietnam, then of the world-wide troubles of 1968, including more assassinations in the US - King and then Bobby Kennedy.
And now I look at a society moving not in the direction of progress on many fronts, but rather towards ever greater economic in equality, fewer people with opportunity to change their circumstances.
I could be depressed. I see senior teachers in my school retiring, feeling as if they have done all they can.
I am not there yet.
I still believe positive change is possible.
Let me explain.
In the 1960s it was possible for one to go to a state college or university, get a degree, and graduate with no meaningful debt. Even at elite private colleges, such as the Haverford College I entered in 1963, the expenses did not seem all that extraordinary. If one could get to college, the opportunities greatly broadened before one.
Now I see increasing numbers of my students, present and former, confronting the issue of costs when making post-secondary decisions. One young man whose father had been sick and just passed will only go to our local community college because with several younger siblings he and his family cannot afford more, despite the fact that he is a very good student. Others cram in the Advanced Placements not because they want to, but because they are trying to lessen the costs they will incur attending college, even at University of Maryland College Park, 4 miles away from our school. They forgo the kind of college experience many of us had because of financial pressures.
The choice of work ... in our day we could, in part because of lack of debt choose to go into service occupations. One might for instance go to Law School then do civil rights law. Now if one gets to law school the burden of debt with one graduates almost forces the new lawyer to forgo such service opportunities. I think our society is a lesser place because of that.
I do not idealize the time in which I grew up. There was racism. There was sexism. Interracial couples were rare, and often harassed or worse. Gays took real risks being open about their sexuality.
On the other hand, in high school I had far more unstructured time than do my students today. Often we did sports on our own, not everything in organized leagues. In the process of the kind of play we did we developed skills that served us well later on. Too many of my students are almost paralyzed at the possibility of operating in an environment without predetermined structures.
This is preface.
I can look back on my life and see where I have been too narrowly focused on my immediate needs and pleasures, too driven by my own insecurities and fears.
In some ways I have been very liberated, because we do not have the responsibility of children of our own, and we have not inherited major financial obligations on behalf of our parents.
Realizing that, I wonder if I am comfortable with what I have done with that freedom. I could be haunted by the "what ifs" my mind can conjure up.
I could also as I approach 65 be terrorized by the sense that time is running out. I have lived almost 2 decade more than my mother did. The males on my father's side had extensive longevity, and both of my mother's siblings lived well into their 80s, so that does not cause as much angst as it otherwise might do.
I do find myself reflecting back, remembering previous times of my life. I read about an old acquaintance and my mind fills with ancient conversations, or perhaps something of a shared experience.
And yet, perhaps because I spend so much time with young people, I still inevitably find myself looking forward. Perhaps that is part of why I teach - it is a way of looking to a future that I hope extends well beyond when I pass.
I was fortunate in having adults who saw possibilities for me. No, not all handled that well. But enough did that no matter how much I struggled they were able to sustain me, to encourage me to keep trying, to take risks, to consider possibilities I otherwise might never have considered.
Some were teachers and professors. One was a boss early in my work career, between stints in college - remember, I did not achieve my bachelor's degree until I was almost 27.
I feel a responsibility to pay it forward, to be sure.
But it is more. I can assess how much I have aged in recent years. I tire more easily. I forget things or get distracted. I sometimes struggle for words and ideas that used to come easily. On the other hand, no matter how bad a situation may be before me - personal or on the larger scales of society and politics - I have lived long enough and through enough that I remain at least somewhat optimistic that what remains within my power can have a positive impact beyond my own life.
I feel an obligation. It is to myself, to the best of my ideals, to try to make a difference.
Yet is is more. It is not merely an obligation. It is . . .how can I phrase this as once again I struggle for words . . . it is privilege. It connects me with things beyond myself that illuminate the universe through me. It enables me to see possibilities through the eyes of others encountering them for the first time. It makes the world alive, pregnant with opportunity not yet encountered.
The formal instruction for the year has ended. Yesterday my Advanced Placement students sat for that examination. Already the rest of my students have begun their review for the required state exam on May 20. We now give those exams on computers, so all of next week will be interrupted with different groups out for their tests, for some of my students a total of four including our government exam which ends the cycle.
When they come in the following Monday, which will be my 65th birthday, they will have only two more things to do. An open book, open noted, un-timed, take-home essay examination, and a project in which they cannot write a paper, must do at least 4 hours of work, and show me that they learned something. I will be out of school between June 1 and June 9 to help grade the AP exams. The final two student days in a year extended by 4 days because of snow are June 16 and 17, and I will be in Minneapolis.
What then happens in the remaining class days I am present? We can explore topics of interest for the students. The pressure is largely off, at least for my courses. They can reflect back on what we have accomplished, or if they prefer, through what they have lived this year.
I too will reflect back on the year. I am already rethinking how I will teach next year, which may well be my last in the school that has been my home for more than a decade. The students are different, and I have to adjust to meet them where they are before i can hope to entice them to move beyond their comfort zones and truly begin to own their own education.
As I near 65 a part of me clearly wants to look backward. There are things I want to remember, to savor to remind myself of the richness I have been privileged to experience. It is in people I have known. Some are well known, others important to me even if not notable.
Yes, I want to look backward, but only because it inspires me to look forward, to realize that there is still so much I can do.
I am lucky.
In about 90 minutes students will begin to arrive in my room for the day. Some will want to chat with one another, others will have things to share with me. They are young - in more than a few cases I am older than their grandparents. They inspire me, even when they frustrate me.
I will never finish this journey, even though it will end. I will not finish it because there is always more. That could be depressing. For me it is not. For me it is inspiring, because it means that so long as I keep at it my life has meaning.
As I already said, I am lucky. It is largely because as a man in midlife I finally found a purpose. I am a teacher.