You high school seniors have been on my mind a lot lately. Staring at that thin coat of greenish yellow pollen dust always takes my mind backwards. There's a certain feel to this month, one that high school seniors uniquely understand.
Lately, I've been taken back to my own days as a senior with Fr. George Tribou as my English teacher. He died almost 20 years ago but his fingerprints still appear in his old school building. Fr. Tribou reigned as the lord of discipline during his time, expecting much, sanding the rough edges of boys by focusing their eyes on duty, integrity, faith. Those who crossed him never forgot it.
But as an English teacher, Fr. Tribou unveiled a romantic love of the written word. He didn't just teach poems, short stories, and essays. Instead, he brought them to life, giving every beautiful word the permission to lift from a page and flutter near those reluctant teenage ears. He loved literature, relished that it could fertilize young minds, adored its ability to inspire with just few short syllables.
Like many readers, Fr. Tribou held Atticus Finch, the lawyer from To Kill a Mockingbird, as a fictional hero. Fr. Tribou was prone to reading long snippets of literature in class, from Cyrano de Bergerac to East of Eden to A Separate Peace, but one scene in To Kill a Mockingbird always gave him pause.
Tom Robinson's sham trial is coming to a raucous conclusion. Atticus delivers a scathing cross-examination and then summation of his arguments. The jury finds Tom guilty of a crime he didn't commit. Scout, Atticus' daughter, watches her father from the rails of the balcony, sitting among people relegated to that view because of systemic racism. Atticus gathers his belongings and begins the walk out of the courtroom.
"Miss Jean Louise," Reverend Sykes says to Scout, "Stand up. Your father is passin' by." And everyone in the crowded balcony stands.
Fr. Tribou read those lines and paused, muscles in his neck tightening, his usually sharp eyes dimmed by moisture. I'll never forget it. Even today my throat goes dry just typing that description.
"Standing for another human being is a sign of respect," Fr. Tribou said. "You are hereby charged with living a life where other people will want to figuratively stand for you. Perseverance, integrity, gathering hope in the face of despair. That's how you build a stand-worthy life."
I think about that lesson often, the old priest reading from a sun-stained paperback book, its pages worn. I often think about that message, about standing.
By now, each of you has read To Kill a Mockingbird. If not, consider it a final assignment. You've also learned a myriad of lessons from calculus to home economics, British literature to American government. But you've learned even more by having the audacity to embrace the lessons of life.
And here you are now, learning one lesson that's the bedrock of all others: Life is not fair.
You entered into this year with the knowledge that it's a year of last times so that you can begin unwrapping the bundle of first times. You inexpertly grasped that high school is the warm-up act, the opening scenes to a life well-lived. And just when the crescendo was building, just when the final plot twists would be unveiled and ultimate questions answered, it ended. Man, that hurts.
You had to dive into virtual school, and that's not what you wanted. You dreamed of proms, senior night for teams, banquets, and a proud walk across the grandest of all stages, graduation. Instead, you're at home, decidedly not with your friends and classmates, harnessed with worry about jobs or college.
Recently, another piece of literature from Fr. Tribou's class came out of the past's fog and into today's clarity, its lines so basic that I recall scoffing at it, thinking it more nursery rhyme than poetry. Even now, I'm not sure it actually counts as literature, but I sure had to memorize it back in English class. The lines go like this:
"Two men looked out from prison bars, one saw the mud, the other saw the stars."
It's the epitome of optimism, Fr. Tribou said. When you find yourself imprisoned by despairing events, find the stars. Find the stars.
And did you ever. Your teachers, well, we often shook our heads in amazement at your energy, your insightful essays, your enthusiasm for the future housed in those Zoom meetings and assignments delivered by digibytes. You spoke of doubt, but you didn't quit. You wrote of despair, but you clung to hope. You lamented the lost months, but you reveled in the thought of what comes next. In the end, you inspired us.
You fought off senioritis in time of pandemic. You fixed your gaze firmly on the stars.
As your teachers, we know it's been a difficult road for you and that your time in the limelight morphed into something unexpected and somewhat dimmer. The fact that you focused on every bit of available light speaks to your perseverance and integrity, to your ability to gather hope around you, tucking in its corners like a well-worn blanket.
In the meantime, we've been thinking of you, thinking of what we will do the next time we see you in person. We've decided that regardless of what part of the state in which you live, regardless of what type of high school you attend, regardless of mascots or rivalries, we will all do the same thing.
Whether on a postponed graduation stage, a serendipitous meeting on a sidewalk, or years from now at your reunion, when we meet you again, we will all do one thing unmistakable and important.
We will stand.
Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editorial on 05/16/2020
Print Headline: Valedictory