by Jim Burke
Age 53. San Francisco, CA
I am a high school teacher (and author) who teaches English to all seniors, so after our last class I wrote the following letter to them all (and their parents). What follows is the letter I sent them all:
Today we held the last class. Though we will see each other throughout the next week leading up to graduation, I wanted to offer a few closing thoughts since there was not really any time in class today. In a way, a class is not so much different from an essay: it begs for some conclusion to give it a sense of an ending.
Today we held the last class. Though we will see each other throughout the next week leading up to graduation, I wanted to offer a few closing thoughts
I created the attached document to give you this morning as a parting package of thoughts, but without any time to explain it, it seemed as though it would have been mostly lost in the rush of the day. So here is some brief variation on what I was trying to convey for those who find time to read it.
In the coming year you will—or at least you should—find your mettle being tested, whether you are in college, the military, or the early stages of your career. Most of you have been able to rely on family and teachers for help these first 18 years; now you begin to move out into the wider waters of the world and will soon realize, though these same people are there to support you, you must represent yourself, must make a name for yourself in the world you are preparing to enter.
This means passing through the fires of those trials you set for yourself or unexpectedly face along the way. It means testing your mettle against the world to find out what you are made of, even as this process helps to strengthen you. We have written essays all year, but in looking up this word mettle, the word essay also came up to my surprise. It turns out it derives from the French word and the idea of attempting to accomplish or understand things we find difficult to comprehend. In the process of essaying, you further prove and improve yourself, thereby further strengthening your mettle.
In the coming year you will—or at least you should—find your mettle being tested, whether you are in college, the military, or the early stages of your career.
Last weekend, I was honored to attend and speak at Scott Taggart’s Eagle Scout ceremony. Returning home from the ceremony, I looked into the idea of merit and merit badges, thought about all the ways Scott and others–not just Scouts–continually test and try themselves, and realized they are constantly testing their mettle by setting themselves challenges, most of them outside of others’ views. Such work is often the slow private work of nurturing one’s passions, or trying things out in order to discover one’s strengths and passions.
The poems I attached are two poems I never have cause to bring into class, but which have been important to me for years, for they capture the deeper part of my relationship with my work as a teacher and a writer, so much of which goes unwitnessed. This was a very difficult year for me for many reasons, most of which taught me essential lessons about what matters most and what I can handle. For everything you thought I did poorly, I assure you I could find five more; but that’s what I love about the work: the quest to always do it better, get it right next time. As I have said, I think you work in the years ahead is to find a question or a problem you find so fascinating you want to spend the rest of your life, or at least the next decade, trying to solve or answer.
But at the moment, you are like the Wanderer we met the first day of class so long ago in August. Back then, you looked out over the senior year ahead and could see little of what would come to pass due to the fog. Now you look ahead to the next stage of your education, wherever it will take place, and it is shrouded in fog also. If you can manage to maintain faith in yourself and your ability to orient yourself when you feel lost, you will find yourself on the other side of that fog having learned another year’s worth of lessons, having further tested your mettle, knowing a little more about yourself and the world in which you must now begin to make your way.
I thank you again for all you gave me the chance to learn from you. Keep in touch.