A speech I gave last week:
It’s good to see you all. I’m really glad to be here, and I love this school. Chapel has become one of my favorite parts of the week, because I like when we (the school) can do things together. Even when I don’t follow the speaker, or I don’t understand the lyrics of a particular song, I still get the feeling that it’s not just myself doing this. We do chapel together.
There are a number of ways we talk about the world, cliches or platitudes, bromides or chestnuts, that we repeat over and over and over and rely upon, which turn out to be completely untrue. The biggest thing I think we misunderstand is time. We talk about time as if it were a series of moments that we inhabit one after the other. We talk about “time flying” or we remember specific moments from long ago, as if they were points on a geometric line, like intersections. We say that moments are brief. But really, when I think about how I experience time, my life is one long moment. I’ve been alive for almost 34 years now, and it’s always now. It’s always now. That single moment never leaves. I never get to go into the past or the future. I’m stuck in the now, and so it’s hard to remember the past or plan for the future. It’s hard to remember the things I’ve been taught and apply them to what I should do next. In a few weeks high school will pass out of the now for all of you, for some of you temporarily, for others permanently, but it will suddenly become very hard to remember the subjunctive mood, or the definition of modernism, why ions are important, or any of the other things you learned in high school. (For more, check out this video and fast-forward to 1:01:25, to watch Stephen Priest throw a rant. I’ve never heard anything like it).
Sometimes adults ask students things like, “What’s the next step in your education?” or “What’s your plan for your next few years?” And by doing so they imply that your education or your life is yours alone, when of course it isn’t. People often defend their actions against criticism by saying, “It’s my life.” However, even avoiding the true but common Christian platitude that your life belongs to God, your life belongs to the rest of us, as well, to your family, your friends, your neighbors, your school, your ancestors, and your children. None of us lives without responsibility to the people around us, even though we would often like to forget that it’s true. Zelda taught me this years ago. Even if it seems like it, life is not a solo adventure.
I like teaching, but when I do it well, it’s not because of some innate capacity in me, it’s because of the community I’m a part of. I don’t know if you guys quite realize how good the English department here is, but over the past nine years of my tenure, it has been a constant source of encouragement and exhortation. The current incarnation has especially helped frame the thoughts I’m about to share with you, and I owe those teachers a debt I am unable to really repay, except to acknowledge that when I think well, I think with them, and when I am in error, they are in absence.
My students also push me in new directions. I should probably thank my freshman English class for making me think harder than I wanted to about pronouns.
I should thank our chaplain for reminding me in almost every single conversation we’ve had over the past five years that the church has been celebrating Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection for at least 500 years.
I come from a family of teachers and preachers, which means we specialize in giving people unsolicited advice. My mom taught here. My wife taught here and now teaches privately. My dad was a pastor for a while, and he still preaches from time to time. My father-in-law is a pastor now. My brother and two of my sisters-in-law are teachers. My mother-in-law was a teacher. My other sister-in-law is a lacrosse coach and my sister is a vocal coach. Her husband works in the physics lab at a university. Teaching and thinking about teaching have been parts of my life for as long as I can remember. Dinner at my house sounds like the Italian parliament.
So, having listened to these people for years upon years, I have finally learned two things about education, that are true, as near as I can make them out. Neither of them is really original, both of them you’ve heard before from different sources, but then most of my life is spent trying to be as unoriginal as possible, and maybe that is good.
1. The important part of education is not gaining new knowledge, though that does happen, but simply being reminded of things we once knew but have forgotten. Plato says that education is being “awakened into knowledge” that we already have. I’ll prove it. One of the major advances in physics over the past century has been the discovery that everything in the universe is tied together. Nothing is independent. Matter and energy are made out of the same thing. But whether or not you’ve taken physics, you guys already knew that, because you know that you can warm something material like newspaper and get energy in the form of light and heat out of it. Another part of the universe being interconnected is that distance and time are really the same thing. That seems wrong, but if I asked you how far you live from school, every one of you will answer in terms of minutes, not miles, right? You know more than you remember.
Plato’s statement means a couple of things. Any time someone tells you he has a new way of looking at religion or at Christ or at the world it’s either something the church has always believed that he just discovered, like the kid who watched Star Wars last week and thinks he’s the first person to geek out over light sabers, or it’s something the church rejected years ago that he’s trying to bring back for nefarious reasons, like George Lucas defending his continued digital alterations to classic films. There is no such thing as new theology. There’s just the faith and heresy.
Also, if most of education is simply remembering things we’ve forgotten, we have forgotten a lot!
2. Next thing, even though education does this important thing of awakening us to knowledge, school is awful. This is my 9th year here. I coached here for a year before that. If you count my incarceration, that means I’ve spent 17 years at this school, 50% of my life. It’s part of who I am. Add elementary school, college and grad school, I have spent 28 of my 34 years in a school. 82%. I know what I’m talking about. School is awful.
Some of you may like learning in classes. Some of you may like your teachers, or fellow students, or athletics. You may even like this school in particular, as I do, but no one likes the mechanism of school. No one likes scantron, crowded hallways, and cinderblock walls the colors of old people’s pants. No one likes lockers, or bells, or uniform referrals. And grades, no one likes summarizing the hundreds of hours a student puts into a single class in a semester with one, lonely letter on a report card.
This may be hyperbole, but I think it’s fair to say high-school is pretty similar to WWI trench warfare. In All Quiet on the Western Front, Eric Maria Remarque describes trench warfare this way. See if this seems familiar.
- You have trouble remembering why you’re here.
- When you signed up everyone told you it would be more exciting than it actually is.
- You spend most of the day sitting, trying not to look up so that no one will notice you.
- You play dumb games to make the time pass.
- You visit the bathroom more than you need to just to make the day go by.
- Every once in a while someone in charge yells at you or blows a horn or rings a bell to tell you to change where you are sitting, but then he moves on and you go back to what you’re doing.
- Lunch might be beef or chicken, but also might be something like raccoon, or horse, or old gym socks… or students who did poorly on their senior practica.
- Every once in a while, you can hear gunshots off in the distance.
- It never seems to end. You have the vague feeling that this will end one day and you’ll be able to get back to “real life,” whatever that means, but right now your moment is school.
Probably the most mind-numbing thing taught in school is grammar, so let’s talk about grammar. Specifically, let’s talk about personal pronouns. Now you’re all taught back in fourth grade, that there are three different points of view from which a book can be written. First, second or third person, right? So, To Kill a Mockingbird is written in first person. Chapter 2 begins:
Dill left us in September…and I was miserable without him, until it occurred to me that I would be starting to school in a week. I never looked forward to anything so much in my life.
She was cured of this opinion pretty quickly. This is a common way for an author to tell a story.
The other popular way to tell a story is from the third person perspective. This is the Lord of the Flies’ perspective.
Ralph remembered the books—they stood on the shelf by the bed, leaning together with always two or three laid flat on the top because he had not bothered to put them back properly.
It’s rare, but you may even find a book written in the 2nd person from time to time, like Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which begins,
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade.
It goes on like this for the whole book.
But all of these books have something in common. There’s only one narrator, and he assumes that you need information about the characters, setting, and basic plot. You don’t know the story, that’s why he’s telling it to you.
But if we go back far enough, to the earliest poem written in English, we find something different.
The opening of Beowulf, a heroic poem written probably around AD 750 translates as, “We have heard how years ago, the kings and princes of the Spear-Danes performed brave deeds.” What’s interesting about this is that the narrator is plural. We have heard these things. This is part of what makes the book hard for modern students to understand. The narrator assumes that everyone listening to the tale has already heard it, but you haven’t. Trying to read this book is like watching just the second half of a Japanese cartoon. There’s probably a reason for that guy’s second head to explode into butterflies, but… you’ll never figure it out.
But thinking of a story as being written by us was common practice in those days. Some of the Oldest English poems, like the Dream of the Rood, were rewritten by people who found the poem and thought they could fix it or improve it. Today, none of us would think of taking Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, adding another chapter and re-publishing it under the same title. It’s not ours; it belongs to Robert Louis Stevenson. But a thousand years ago, English poems didn’t have authors. Everyone wrote them together, like an ancient, poetic wikipedia.
They even had their own little version of twitter. They would list short sayings of about a sentence or two that everyone could remember. That way, if you find yourself lost on the heath and see a bear, you would remember that bears are ancient and terrible, and you should probably leave before you get killed. Unlike twitter, which is just there to help you forget things, a digital memory-hole, these short sayings were intended to help everyone remember the same wisdom. It belonged to everyone.
The people who wrote these were terrified that a day would come when no one would remember the wisdom they had collected. This is a riddle recorded about the year 1000. Can you figure out the solution?
I heard of a wonder, of words moth-eaten;that is a strange thing, I thought, weirdthat a man’s song be swallowed by a worm,his binded sentences, his bedside stand-byrustled in the night – and the robber-guestnot one whit the wiser for the words he mumbled.(Trans. by C. Williamson)
The poem is about a bug, a literal bookworm, eating a book filled with poetry. The author is worried that by writing things down and entrusting them to books instead of human memory, we will allow ourselves to forget and lose that shared knowledge everyone used to have. We will become you and I.
And he was right. Over time this idea of a plural narrator fell away. By the end of the 13th century, about 600 years after Beowulf was written, we get the next great works of English literature. One is Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. We don’t know who the author is, but he tells a story about King Arthur’s court, and he calls it an “unmatched marvel” expecting his audience not to know the story. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales about the same time, and for him, the narrator while still a community, isn’t working together. Chaucer’s book describes thirty different narrators. He calls them “sondry folk” which literally means “divided people.” They each have their own tale, and the stories don’t overlap or even intersect. There is no “we.” Whatever that collective knowledge was that we used to have is lost.
At the end of the sixteenth century, Shakespeare returned to this kind of story-telling for his plays. Think of the ending lines of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, as you may remember, we all saw earlier this year. Puck closes the play by saying, “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you did but slumber here, while these visions did appear.” In fact, I think most drama troops think of themselves as plural, telling a story together, but Shakespeare was the last author to really write that way.
Today, most of the time we use the 1st person plural, we don’t really mean it. It’s one of those ubiquitous cliches or platitudes that isn’t really true.
As a student, I used to hate all the phony ways people try to pretend there’s unity when there’s not: all the ways people use “we” and don’t really mean it. Student council elections always have some excessively chipper kid saying, “I just really want us all to have the best junior year possible and really come together as a class,” instead of laying out any actual plans.
But he’s just imitating what he’s seen adults do. Coaches use simple, stupid aphorisms, like “There’s no I in TEAM” or “We’re all in this together” or things like that. They give all their advice in the first person plural. “We’re gonna have to score some runs, fellas” or “We have to control the line of scrimmage” or “We have got to rebound better.” What do coaches mean by this? Clearly the coach is not actually going to be involved in this. He’s not boxing people out or diving for loose balls or swinging the bat. He means you have to do it. You have to do better. He just stands on the sideline. There is no we here.
Teachers do this too. “Today guys, we’re going to learn about congruent triangles!” This means “I’m going to teach, and you all will please not throw your lives and education away by being morons, and goofing off.” Or how about my personal favorite, “If you guys prepare for class, we can get into some really deep stuff.” Again, the real meaning here, is that if you do the reading the teacher can hold forth on a subject that interests him without completely abandoning you to the apathy and confusion that are your native states.
It’s not like I suddenly figured this out either. We all know this. We all know that most 1st person plurals are phony. I knew it when I left for college. I remember I wanted to get out of here, get on my own, and find out what the real world was like, to live a real life by myself without all these people pretending to be part of me.
About a quarter of you are leaving and going on your way in a month. And when you are in college, no one will care what you do in your private life. Some of you are really excited about this, like I was. No one will say anything if you skip an assignment. Your professors won’t care who you’re dating or what the two of you are doing together. No one will tell you to go to church or do your chores. You can go semesters without doing laundry. No one will comment on your clothing, as long as you are clothed. Teachers won’t report you to the administration if you get stoned, as long as you’re quiet during class. Some professors don’t care if you come to class, as long as you show up on test day. Even if you miss that, giving you an F won’t really bother them. The college is not going to track your social life, or worry about whether you’re smoking, or anything else. Class is class, and your life is a separate thing. Sounds like heaven, right?
The only problem with this is that it’s not real. In college, private life has nothing to do with public life, but that will never again be true. It’s the only part of your life where people will confuse heaven with solitary confinement. But heaven is a home for many saints, not just you. And I think we all know this, even if we don’t want to admit it. [Slide] What we do in private affects every other part of our lives. What we do at home on the weekends affects what happens in class on Monday, and though people pretend it doesn’t, we all really know that it does.
But sometimes we like to forget this is true, especially when it makes things easier for us. Imagine that the Chemistry teacher and I need a little extra money, so we start a little side business selling crack to another school’s students. Imagine the principal finds out. What am I going to say to her? “Don’t worry. I never brought any to campus.” How about, “It’s okay, my mom says she doesn’t mind”? “What I do in my own time is my own business. It doesn’t have any affect on my ability to teach.” Would anyone believe that? As far as I can tell, that’s the point of Breaking Bad. Walter and Jesse soon find out that everything is connected, even when they try to separate it.
We all know that what’s going on at home, say with your parents, or your boyfriend or girlfriend affects how you act in school. When you lose a family member, or a new sibling is born, or a parent has too much to drink, when you move to a new house, or the electricity is out, it affects your ability to do school, doesn’t it? If one of you moves or has a flood, or has a death in the family, I’m not going to demand that everything be turned in on time at the same schedule. I realize everything is connected, that we need each other’s help, and I’ll make room for you to catch up.
My father is a diplomat. He works for the Department of Commerce overseeing maybe the most important technology we have: wireless communication. He’s responsible for making sure some terrorist’s iPhone can’t hijack one of our drones. He makes sure the robotics team doesn’t crash a 747 at BWI. He has top secret clearance. Every five years or so, the FBI sends a team of people around to interview his neighbors and his pastor. Do you know what they ask them? They ask whether they’ve seen any evidence that my dad is cheating on my mom. Now why would the FBI care about what my dad does for fun when he goes home on the weekend? Because the primary method that our enemies have of stealing government secrets is spies having affairs with our officials. Whether or not my father is faithful to my mother is a matter of national security. Think about the scandal that broke just two weeks ago with the Secret Service agents partying with a bunch of prostitutes in Cartagena. Do you think the president cares whether they were off duty? Do you think those agents gave him a sullen look and told him that what they do in their free time is none of his business? Do you think anyone, even the men involved can remember if they let any secrets slip during their little party? Every part of our lives counts.
Now, are there things we should probably shouldn’t just blurt out in public? Sure. But if you think that what goes on in a teacher’s home on the weekend doesn’t affect the school and the classroom, you’re being willfully ignorant. And anyone who thinks that what he does on a Friday night doesn’t affect church on Sunday or school on Monday is kidding himself. There is no such thing as a private life. Everything is connected.
High school is a really good example of this. While you’re in it, high school seems like a private prison, a circus, a farce, where nearly everyone around you is either a hypocrite or a moron, and it’s hard to understand why you have to go through it. But there is a reason.
The reason, of course, is that this isn’t your education at all. It’s our education. How many of you are going to be 18 before November? You all are the reason for school. You all have to vote. We, right here, the American people, are the foundation of the most powerful government in the world. Even right now, your life is not your own. The entire educational system in the United States is based upon a very simple concept that Thomas Jefferson explained when our country was being founded. If we’re going to give the power to rule to the people, the people had better be ready to rule. They must be educated, which for the founding fathers meant being able to read. Jefferson knew that every right the constitution gives us can and will be taken away if the people who protect it aren’t educated…if they don’t read.
You are not being educated so that you can make money. You are being educated so that you can vote well, and protect the liberty and safety of the friends, neighbors, and enemies who live with you in this country.
This is the point of a high school education. How will you decide what the best course of action is for fixing the economy unless you understand economic theory? How will you understand the problems facing social security unless you can do math? How will you decide which projects to fund if you don’t know Biology? How will you know which leaders are lying to you if you don’t read well? But if you don’t do these things, who will? Our parents, though it’s hard to think about, will be leaving us gradually as we get older, moving out of the moments we inhabit, and we’re going to be the ones left in charge. It’s not your homework, it’s not your reading. It’s not your test. They’re ours. Not studying doesn’t just hurt you, it hurts the future economic stability of the country, because slowly but surely, it elects fools and villains to positions of power.
Beyond being bad with money, corrupt leaders pervert education in another way. Education is about discovering the root of morality. Check out John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government for another example. More than almost any other, this is the document that influenced the people who founded our government. His major point is that adults can vote when they can reason well enough to consider the needs of their neighbors before their own. According to Locke, you can’t even be a citizen until you’re educated, and educated means understanding that there is no part of your life that doesn’t affect other parts of it, and that everything you do is either a blessing or a curse to the people living around you. We are always living together in community.
It’s easy to forget this. But there’s a deeper and more dangerous truth lurking just below the surface. We forget the truth about the world, not because we’re dumb, or distracted, but because it’s easier, and we would rather have what’s easy than what’s good. Any human when left to himself will forget important things on purpose.
All that stuff I told you about voting and school you knew already. Your parents and teachers have talked about the blessings and responsibilities of being an American for years. Your pastors have talked about rewards in heaven. But in the moment when we’re presented with a distraction, video games, food, hotties, whatever, we decide to forget what we all know and ditch our work. Our exact thought is, “I’ll worry about that later,” and away we go. The extraordinary, and unusual gift of contributing to the government of the greatest country in the world becomes less important than the latest philosoraptor meme, to say nothing of the requirements Christ places upon us to be saints.
I think most things in life are this way. When I sin, when I’m cruel, when I’m disdainful or proud, it’s not because I don’t know what I’m doing, it’s because I decide for a moment to ignore the fact that I’m a follower of Christ, and just do whatever comes into my head. When I went off for college and for the first time was trying to live by myself, I found this out. Every reading assignment I avoided, every friend I slighted, every girl I dated even though I knew she was bad for me, I knew what I was doing. I just ignored that knowledge, and after a while it became harder to remember it. I forgot that I was called to be a saint, to be perfect even as my heavenly father is perfect. And that’s what sin is…intentionally forgetting what we know to be true.
That riddle from 1,000 years ago, was amazingly accurate. The author was worried that writing down human wisdom would cause us to begin to forget it. That internet turns the whole world into a library, and we can still spend hours on it without learning anything. Can you remember the last thing you looked up on Wikipedia? I can’t. Someone wrote it down so I wouldn’t have to remember it. But now that everything is written down, I can’t remember anything. Furthermore, even though we communicate more and more through text, and even though more of the world’s population is literate than at any time in the past, we’ve made it harder than ever to actually remember what we read. The internet gives us information in text, but it does its best to distract us from the information it offers. Even CNN, which should probably want people to read the news, floods the text with distractions.
But this is exactly why we have school. We need to be surrounded by other people who will call us out when we “forget” to do things we ought to be doing. It’s funny, isn’t it, that I can give students books filled with wisdom that has guided men for 2,000 years, but people won’t read it. However, one F on a reading quiz, which is essentially meaningless, and all of the sudden, there’s motivation. We need grades to spur us on, we need teachers, and principals, and other students, because the real goals, like truth, beauty, faith, wisdom, and all things heavenly, we are really good at forgetting.
This is the truth about humans. We were intended for eternal fellowship, and so we live and learn in community, not out of it, and life is better when we remember that.
This is also my testimony. I was saved not because I had some gin-soaked moment of despair, sitting alone on a train track somewhere. I have come to believe in God, Christ, and the church, not because of any great revelation in myself, but because of the call of Christ that I heard through the saints around me.
I was saved on August 28th, 1984. I was six. It was the day before I was to begin 1st grade, and I had been waking up with the same feeling for a few days… that I couldn’t handle life on my own. Fortunately, I knew some people who had answers. I came downstairs for breakfast and talked to my mom about it. She gave me a long look and told me to go out on the back porch and ask Jesus to come into my heart. Afterward she bought me a Bible. I’ve had it ever since. It’s a bit ragged, but it’s the same one. I kind of wish it had a big cross on the front like Link’s shield, but I make do with what’s given to me.
That’s it, that’s my story of salvation. Some people have a story about being pulled out of their despair and addiction, but God never did that for me. It would be better to say that He did it for me before I even knew those things existed, and He used my family and other people around me to do it. Whatever bad tendencies I’ve developed or situations I’ve tried to get into, whenever I’ve tried to forget the things I know are true just because it would be easier, my family and friends, the saints who fill my life, have been there to call me back. Because of them, the simple truth that you and I can’t handle life alone has remained with me my whole life, even though it’s sometimes hard to remember. Like Zelda taught me long ago, life is too big for a solo adventure. Fortunately it doesn’t have to be.
What I’m about to say applies to everyone here, but especially you Seniors, because you are about to leave. You are about to go into what people have told you is the real world. You won’t have teachers or the mechanism of school to support you. You’ll leave behind most if not all of your friends, and you’ll want to forget all the things you know.
But here are two things you can do to make sure you remember what you have learned. You’re not going to like either bit of advice because though they will make your life better, they will not make it easier.
1. The first thing is read more. I’m going to say that again. Read more. Read more. Read more. Training yourself to read is training yourself to listen and remember. If you don’t do these two things you will be a poor citizen, friend, spouse, parent, you name it. Read more. I’m going to say it again. Read more.
Even right now, some of you are rolling your eyes, shifting uncomfortably in your seat, and trying to forget what I just told you. Even right now you are letting yourself forget an uncomfortable truth. I said “read more” and all of the sudden, you’ve got C-Lo songs running through your head. You were ready for advice like I give my two year old. “If you’re mean to other boys and girls you should apologize,” or, “Don’t kick the Easter Bunny.” But this is what the real world is actually like: good advice means more work… Read more.
2. The second thing is this: go to church. Don’t just attend, don’t just sit in the back and text pictures of your friends. Get involved. There are women living alone who need help with things they can’t fix on their own. There are senior citizens in your church who need your energy and friendship. There are sick who need comfort. Get involved. Do it now, do it next year. Keep doing it.
Now some of you are thinking, “I know there are people who need help, but I don’t have time for that Mr. Nebbia. I’ve got soccer and chores, and do you know how much homework I have?” Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s great, but I need energy to do well in school, which means making sure I get enough sleep, and get good nutrition, and I have to relax a bit on the weekends just for my own sanity, you know.” You are trying to convince yourself you don’t need to remember this truth. But if I ask you on Monday what you did this weekend, you’re going to tell me, “Not much,” or “Nothing really.”
Look at how deep the self deception is. Not only do we use things like the internet or games or whatever to distract us from things we ought to be doing, but we use a sort of phony nonchalance to even forget that we distracted ourselves.
Go to church. Many of us would like to forget this advice. We try to convince ourselves that youth group, or Bible class, or chapel is the same thing, so that we don’t have to go. Maybe we think that marching band is the same as worship, so you don’t have to go to church and moan along to the hymns with everyone else in your church. Maybe you’re annoyed with the pastor or you don’t like the worship style or there’s that weird old lady who always tries to kiss your cheek and thank you for coming. But you should go to church, because, and it’s not like you don’t already know this, faith is something we do together. When the disciples asked Christ how to pray, he told them to do it quietly, and in secret, but when they pray, he told them to pray like this.
Our Father, who art in Heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day, our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil,
for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory
for ever and ever. Amen.
Notice something about the pronouns? They’re first person plural. Christ expects them to pray together. He’s not my father, or your father, he’s our father. We are in this together. We are the bride of Christ. We are the body of Christ. And the faith is diminished when we are divided. None of us is more valuable than the others, and none of us can survive without the others.
Seniors, the most important advice anyone is going to give you about college is this: before you move into the dorm, before school starts, find a church in the area. Commit to the church. Support it with your time, energy, and what money you can spare. You cannot be a Christian alone at college, or anywhere really. I know. I tried. Do not forget that St. Paul told the Philippians to look out not for their own interests, but for the interests of others. Don’t forget that the writer of Hebrews tells us to assemble together to exhort one another. Don’t forget that the last thing Christ prayed before he went to suffer was that we would be one, even as he and the Father are one. Faith is not a solo adventure, life is not a solo adventure. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be.