Read the remarks below that Nancy Wassner, High School English Teacher, delivered to the CESJDS Class of 2017 at their Siyyum on Friday, February 10, 2017 as the faculty speaker.
Good morning friends, families, special guests, Paul Blank. And good morning –boker tov-- to the Class of 2017. I feel very privileged to speak to you this morning. I did the math, and it turns out I have taught about 85% of this class in tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade English as well as K'hillah. Of the rest, I've probably caught you out of class in the hallway or made you cover your head during KabShab. But just in case I've somehow missed the opportunity share my wisdom with each of one of you, I've got you now. So listen up, chevreh.
Sometime in my junior or senior year of high school, I got a promotional poster in the mail from a college in Oregon. It said, "You already are what you want to be when you grow up." And I thought that was just the coolest poster. I had zero intention of going to college in Oregon, but I put that poster on my wall, and I thought, "Yeah. I AM already what I want to be when I grow up. I TOTALLY know what that means!"
I had no idea what that meant.
When I started teaching here at CESJDS five years ago, the school had just begun an effort to emphasize three values: k'hillah, community; ahrayut, responsibility; and derekh eretz, which we translated at the time to mean respect. I think that we do a pretty good job here with community and responsibility, k'hillah and ahrayut. But, it's the third one, respect, that I have been thinking about.
Currently, in the eight core values of our school, we translate derekh eretz as ethical responsibility. I think you all have a sense of that. I don't worry that you are not respectful people. No, I am concerned that we may have misled you in this school. By creating an atmosphere of respect here, I worry that you might graduate and go into the great big world thinking that you are a person deserving of respect in every scenario. And I'm here to tell you that in most scenarios, right now, at the age of 17 or 18, you are not deserving of respect. Just like at the age of 17, I was not the person I wanted to be when I grew up. Because we don't just magically get to be whatever we want.
To me, it's a matter of verbs. In order to BE anything, you have to DO a lot of something. In order to be good at basketball, you have to do a lot of running. You have to drill. You have to take a lot of shots. You have to practice. In order to be a good singer, you have to sing a lot of scales. You have to breathe in weird ways to isolate muscles you never even knew you had. You have to practice. In order to be a good writer or dancer or layner of Torah or speaker of another language, you have to practice. There are a lot of action verbs involved in being anything.
In the same way, you don't just—poof!—become a person worthy of respect. It takes practice. It takes actions. Plural actions. You don't just need to show up; you need to show up on time. Every day. You don't just need to try to meet expectations; you actually have to meet them. You don't just need to pretend to listen in class or in staff meetings while you're really chatting with your friends online; you have to listen for real and ask real questions. You have to show respect for whatever it is you are trying to do or trying to be. You have to show respect for yourself.
Respecting yourself is hard. It's not the same as thinking you're fun or cute or are a good athlete or artist. Those are self-confidence, which does not require any basis in reality. Again, self-respect comes from actions. From knowing that you have done the right thing. Or that you are going to do the right thing tomorrow. Or that you messed up this time, but you've learned, and next time, you will get it right. That's self-respect. That's integrity. And integrity, like every other skill, is not something you just—poof!—get. You have to practice.
Over and over again in your life, starting right now and continuing forever, you will have to decide what is the right thing for you. Your classes on ethical dilemmas and current issues should help you on some of the big questions. Your other classes may help you in other ways. Math classes will help you create budgets. Science classes will help you understand the natural world. Foreign language will help you communicate with other cultures. Your experiences in Zman Kodesh will help you figure out the right kind of spiritual life for you. And English class should have taught you how to respond should you find yourself at a raucous party hosted by a maybe-bootlegger/maybe-German spy. Or meeting up with a lovable ragamuffin named Huckleberry floating down the Mississippi. History class, by the way, hopefully has taught you what to do if you find yourself somehow in the wrong century.
But I admit that you will rarely find yourself time traveling. Instead, you're going to find yourself facing lots of options, a lot fewer rules, and parents a lot farther away. And when you face those options, you are definitely going to make some really bad decisions. You're going to look back and think, "Well, that was dumb. Why did I do that?" I'll tell you why. Because you have to make wrong decisions to learn which are the right ones for you. You have to push boundaries sometimes to learn where they are. And knowing where your boundaries are, where your wrong and right are, those are the beginnings of integrity.
The rest is action. The rest is choosing to do the right thing. Not the thing other people tell you is right, but the thing you know deep down is right for you. And not just once. Not just when it's fun. But time after time, when it's hard. When you are tired and your muscles ache, and you do it anyway because you know what I did not when I was 17. You are not yet the person you want to be when you grow up. But you can become that person. It's just going to take a lot of action verbs.
And this is what I hope for you. As a school, as a k'hillah, we have tried to give you the tools to be people of integrity, to be people worthy of respect. Over my five years here, I've seen the Class of 2017 learn, grow, and mature into this incredible group. And you are incredible. We are so proud of you. Mazal tov to you and your families on this day of your Siyyum, this day of your finishing, reaching a huge milestone in your lives. You deserve every accolade and congratulations and hug you receive today. But as of Sunday, your Commencement, your new beginning, all those verbs are in your hands. Go and do. And I wish you hamon hatzlacha, lots of success.
Nancy Wassner is a CESJDS High School English Teacher and Coordinator of the Irene and Daniel Simpkins Senior Capstone Israel Trip.