Good afternoon, and thanks for having me here. I am honored to have been invited by the senior class to say a few words at their graduation. I never thought I’d be standing in front of a group of teenagers again, trying to say something significant, but I’ll try.
For you graduates today is a transitional day, a transformative day,. And it’s a good day to start thinking about what you want to do with your lives. Of course, you should never stop thinking about what you want to do with your lives. I didn’t become a teacher till I was 36 years old, and I believe we are never too old to transform ourselves. Life isn’t about finding out who you are or discovering yourself, it’s about making yourself into the person you want to be. Every person is always a work in progress.
Your lives are about to change. Many of you will be heading off to college in a few months. And, unfortunately, some of you will be returning from college a few months after that. I hope not, but it does happen. It almost happened to me. At age 17 I found the freedom of college life intoxicating. And I found some other things intoxicating, too. Plus, I was in a rock and roll band. I had a lot of fun those first few months in college, playing with the band at frat parties, sleeping till noon, skipping classes. But halfway through the first semester I got called into the dean’s office and warned I was going to flunk out, so I put in some work and earned a not-so-glorious 2.2 GPA for the first semester. But I felt bad for my father. He never went to college, he’d worked hard all his life, and he was paying a lot of money for me to party. So I promised myself I would get B’s from then on in every course, and I did. I even got an A or two in some weird subjects like Latin and Norse Sagas. By the time I graduated, my overall GPA was over 3. Not stellar but not disgraceful. I hope none of you dig yourself into a hole as fast as I did.
Anyway, I remember one night during my sophomore year, I made up what I called a “life list,” things I wanted to do before I died. I was making a bucket list at age 18. It was a great list. Very adventurous. Of course, I’ve lost it. But I remember some of the things that were on it. Some of them I accomplished, like working on a farm, living in New York City, living in England, and working in a mental hospital. I’d read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and so I later became a psychiatric aide at the old Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham. Some other time I’ll be glad to tell you about my time in the mental hospital. Good training for teaching high school.
Some things on the list I never accomplished. I wanted to work my way around the world on a tramp steamer, but I never did. I wanted to work on a kibbutz in Israel but I never got there. But I did get to work on a farm. It was the first job I had after I graduated from college. It was in a little town called Heuvelton, way upstate in New York, just 6 miles from the Canadian border, I got a job on a dairy farm there. I loved that job. Milking cows and making hay, 80 hours a week, for 50 cents an hour. I still consider it the second best job I ever had. Teaching was the best.
At the end of that summer, I came to Martha’s Vineyard for the first time. It was love at first sight and I’m still in love with the island 43 years later. I just had to stay. I got a job as a busboy in the Navigator Restaurant in Edgartown. One thing lead to another and I wound up spending the next 15 years working in restaurants and bars, on the Vineyard, in Harvard Sq., in New York city, and in London. It was a lot of fun and I had some great experiences, and I got to cross a few items off my life list.
However, when I turned 35 I realized I wanted something more out of life. I needed a change. One day while I was managing a restaurant in Dedham, Mass., I was training some high school kids on how to bus tables, and I realized that I liked doing that. I liked helping young people learn how to do something. I’d always wanted to do something in life that was helpful to other people, something I felt had a higher purpose than just “getting and spending.” So I decided to become a teacher.
It took two years to take all the education courses I needed and to student teach, but when I finished, I applied for a teaching job at MVRHS, and I got it, in 1987. But I wasn’t done with restaurants, oh no. I had to wait on tables for another 12 years to support my teaching habit. Those first years teaching were tough. I am not surprised that, according to the Washington Post, half of all teachers quit in their first five years. There’s not a lot of support, you are teaching lots of different classes for the first time, and most people can’t survive on a beginning teacher’s salary. And truthfully, I didn’t think I was really good at first. It took me 10 years to feel fully capable. So here’s some advice for new teachers: give it 10 years.
On the other hand, I don’t think I was really bad when I started, partly because I was older and had some “real world” experience. Managing any business, like a restaurant, takes people skills, as does managing a classroom. You have to be flexible and open minded when you manage people. Every group and every person is different and they don’t always conform to your preconceived notions of what they should be like. So here’s another tip for teachers: get some “real world” work experience, if you can, before you enter the classroom.
Here are a few things I’ve learned that I’d like to share with you.
One, don’t be afraid of change. At any age, if you’re not happy with your life, fix what’s wrong and try something new, no matter how much effort it takes.
Two, get as much education as you can. They can never take it away from you. You can lose your job, you can lose your money, your wife or husband can leave you, your kids can disappoint you, or you can just get sick. But once you get your diploma today no one can ever take it from you. And don’t stop your education now. Don’t stop in just four more years. I earned my Master’s Degree at age 55. Never stop learning.
Three, travel. See this great country. See the world. There is no better way to open your mind, there is no better learning experience, there is no better school than traveling. I’ve been to 20 countries, and I want to see 20 more. I spent last November in India. What a great country, what great people, what a great experience. I learned so much while I was there. I wouldn’t want to call anywhere home except Martha’s Vineyard, but traveling is the best form of education.
Four, buy a piece of property. My father always said real estate was the best investment because, “They're not making any more of it.” One of the best moves I ever made was buying a house here in 1987. I wish I had done it 10 years earlier. If you get the chance, purchase a piece of the planet.
Five, here’s another financial tip: start saving. Plan ahead. I was waiting tables when I was 24 and money just flowed through my pockets, so I decided to start an IRA, an individual retirement account. For a few years I put a few grand into Fidelity’s Magellan Fund and 40 years later it’s grown into quite a few grand. I know it’s often hard just to make ends meet, but nothing makes money like money well invested, over time. Save what you can and plan for the future. It’ll be here soon.
My last bit of advice I’ll borrow from Amy Wallace. Does anyone remember the New Yorker cartoon that was on her door for a long time? It was of two men standing before a large sign which said, “Stop and Think,” and one guy says to the other guy, “Kind of makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?” It often made me stop and think. I suggest that, once in a while, you stop and think about what you’re doing with your life and where you’re headed. Think about the things you want to make happen in your life. You only travel this way once, and it doesn’t hurt to have a few destinations in mind. Don’t drift through life.
When Thoreau went to live by Walden Pond he wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
You don’t have to go to the woods in order to “live deliberately.” You can do it anywhere. But please don’t live “accidentally.” Try to know where you’re going. You can even make a list.
Goodbye and Peace.
Keith Dodge was an English teacher at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School; he retired last year.