Awards are fun. Grants are great. Some of us love to compete and win. But for me, as a teacher, there’s something much sweeter than competition and winning. That’s being thanked by a student. Thanked in small ways, and thanked in big ways. And, sometimes being thanked in a way a teacher could not imagine.
My former student, Jennifer Joy, decided her senior year with me at North to attend Grinnell College in Grinnell, IA. Grinnell is a prestigious, demanding, nurturing private liberal arts college smack-dab in the middle of Iowa. Since I’d lived in Iowa and knew how amazing Grinnell is, and since the winters in Iowa are the reason we now live in Oklahoma, I was excited for her…I spent these years ‘imagining’ her in a setting I remembered.
This, her senior year, she contacted me and said she was going to nominate me for an award that Grinnell gives a classroom teacher. We talked, compared notes, and I forgot all about it.
A couple of months ago, I was contacted by Grinnell to tell me I would be THE classroom teacher representing all the teachers Grinnell students had had in their K-12 career. I would come to Grinnell and attend Commencement. I would give a short talk. I would receive an honorary doctorate. ME! English teacher, me.
Reflecting on that honor still makes me weak with gratitude. What a wonderful idea to connect their students back to the schools and teachers who contributed to their early successes, who helped mold them into the thinkers Grinnell College wanted as their own.
The weekend was amazing. I got to hug Jennifer and meet her parents. I had Jennifer her last semester at North, and spring semester, we do not hold parent-teacher conferences, just enrollment conferences, so I never had the opportunity to meet them before. I met her little sister and hugged her big sister who had been a volunteer with me for Special Olympics. I went to a swanky “Heavy hors d’oeuvre” cocktail party at President Kington’s home. Grinnell faculty came to speak to me, saying, “So, you’re THE teacher.”
I met Zadie Smith, author of novels and brilliant essays. I might have fan-girled a bit. She's intimidatingly talented. I secretly envied her beautiful silk dress that was covered by her gown, and definitely envied her wrapped turban she wore instead of the unflattering mortar board.
I met Tom Cole, US Congressman from Oklahoma (MY US Congressman)…a Grinnell graduate. We laughed about our long trip to finally meet.
My favorite question to ask Grinnell students and alumns was, "How DID you find this college?" I loved hearing the answers. This college is a tiny gem that finds the exact right kind of students to thrive.
I received that honorary doctorate, and I didn’t bungle my words. I made new friends, I visited a beautiful Midwestern town, and a vibrant college campus. I wandered the town (doesn’t take long!), took pictures of the plants that grow there but not in Oklahoma. I was THE teacher…and I tried to encourage the graduates to thank their own teachers…to reach out and reconnect with a teacher who inspired them, believed in them.
I wish every teacher could have felt the gratitude I did. I wish we could all be reminded as meaningfully as I was, that our work matters. Relationships matter. Teaching and learning matter. What we do opens the world for our students.
I have never been so proud to be an educator as I was that weekend.
Here is my short address to the graduates of Grinnell:
Thank you to President Kington, the Board of Trustees, the faculty of Grinnell, and the Honorary Degree Selection Committee, for this recognition. Thank you to Rachel Bly and the Conference Operations staff, for making the arrangements for my visit. But most of all, thank you, Jennifer Joy, for this invitation to return to Iowa and participate in your graduation.
My husband and I started our post-graduate careers just down the road, in Iowa City. Those years were eventful. I taught at Clear Creek High School, where I learned to make connections with students, and to be reflective and intentional. Our son started school in Iowa. Our daughter was born in Iowa. This state prepared us for our next adventure.
To return now, to be a part of this graduation ceremony, to see Jennifer, to meet my very own US Representative, Tom Cole, a Grinnell graduate, and to listen to Zadie Smith is a thrill. Jennifer made it happen for me.
Jennifer and I met in my English elective, Reading for Pleasure in Norman, Ok. I know some of you are thinking you’d love to join us, and others are wondering how anyone could spend a semester reading for pleasure. But we bonded while reading, writing, thinking, and talking about books.
When Jennifer said she was coming to Grinnell, I knew its splendid reputation and knew she would be challenged and nurtured. I will admit I warned her about the winters. This was the right place for her to grow as a person. And to be here today as she graduates warms my heart.
Your tradition of honoring a classroom teacher, one teacher who represents all the teachers who contributed to your success, recognizes the unique mission of all educators. I am grateful you were encouraged to look back and think about your K-12 teachers.
This tradition connects your first day in kindergarten to this, your last day as an undergrad, sitting with friends, ready to leave school…for a while…and find your path.
I attended your Baccalaureate yesterday and witnessed the strong connections you have to the professors and staff at Grinnell. I was moved by the hugs and smiles, and know your time here is also full of positive relationships.
This honor, bestowed by Grinnell College, and by Jennifer, is the highest honor a teacher can earn. We live our life with students. We create learning communities, and grow together. Students keep us young and you age us prematurely. You challenge us and mystify us. You find your way into our hearts and never leave. This is what it is to be a teacher…to stay awake worrying about a student. To spend hours grading papers, writing notes on each. To invent a Friday Blessing to remind you how precious you are. We know you are treasures. Our beacon to a time we will never see.
I’m here today, but I know each of you can name a teacher who believed in you, supported and encouraged you. Someone who deserves to be standing here watching you graduate from Grinnell.
Maybe it was the teacher who taught you to read. Or a school librarian. Or an orchestra teacher, a history teacher, or math teacher. A coach who pushed you to excel. The teacher who showed you the solar system or the beauty of the sonnet. I know each of you is here today, partially because of classroom teachers.
So, Class of 2016, do me a favor. Promise to write a short note thanking that teacher, telling him or her about your successes here at Grinnell, and your plans after graduation. Reconnect. Let your teacher know what he or she meant to you.
Thank a teacher for me…for yourself. I promise, it will mean the world to your teacher, your mentor. You’re our legacy.
And, read a book for pleasure…I highly recommend you choose a Zadie Smith book!
Thank you again, and congratulations to you all.