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Wednesday, 19 December 2007 00:00

You cats dressed in blue, this is for you

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(Editor’s note: Smoky Mountain News columnist Chris Cox delivered this address to the graduating class at Southwestern Community College this past weekend.)

A couple of days after I was asked to deliver this address, I asked my creative writing students if they had any ideas about what I should say. One of them said, “You should say something funny. Definitely funny.” But then one of them said, pausing for effect, “What if you try to say something funny and no one laughs?”

“I guess it will be just like one of my classes,” I told her. “I should feel right at home.”

Finally, a young lady who just happens to be graduating tonight said, and I was really touched by this, “Hey, what happened to our slide show?”

“Well, for the winter commencement, you get a speaker,” I said, a little defensively.

“OK, but don’t you dare do the same boring speech everyone does,” she warned. “Why don’t your write a poem or something? Yeah, you could do a Dr. Seuss-type thing. That might be all right.”

Dr. Seuss, huh? Well, as it happens, as the father of two kids, ages six and two, I have read “Green Eggs and Ham” about five nights a week for a good long while now, so I thought the least I could do was give it my best shot. So this is for you, Amber. Sorry about the slide show. With apologies to Dr. Seuss, and to all of you, here’s a little ditty called:

Who Are Those Cats In The Mortar Board Hats?

The Class of 0-7, what an excellent class,

These cats, they have brains, they have wit, they have sass

And these cats over here, well these cats say you pass.

Don’t you look spiffy, all dressed up in blue?

And to think how you started with nary a clue

What these cats dressed in black had waiting for you.

You’ve given up weekends for two or three years,

You’ve been driven to madness, driven to tears,

Now all of us here, we give you three cheers!

Take a look over there at those cats dressed in black

You’ve finally gotten them off of your back,

Look at them, tell them, “We’re out of here, Jack.”

You’ve written our papers, you’ve passed all our tests,

You’ve haunted our offices like some kind of pests,

You knew we were hiding, like birds in our nests.

You made it through English, you made it through math,

Where others have strayed, you have stayed on the path,

And those in the way, well, they felt your wrath.

You’re the class of 0-7, you better believe it,

You cats dressed in blue, you all had to achieve it

The ones who dropped out can now only grieve it.

So we cats dressed in black, we bid you farewell,

We’re well aware that we’ve put you through...a lot,

And seeing you now, well, it makes our hearts swell.

Thank goodness she didn’t ask for a Spanish sonnet. OK, moving right along....

An end, a beginning

Jerry Seinfeld once said that, “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

Well, for the record, I’m glad I’m not in a casket, even if this is a little nerve wracking. And I’m glad this is not a eulogy, although, in some ways I guess it is similar. We are celebrating the end of something important, although it is not really an end but a beginning. I guess in some ways it is both.

I want you to think back to your own beginning as a student here, to reflect on how far you have come and what you have accomplished. Certainly, being here with you tonight has caused me to reflect some as well.

I admit that I did not regard teaching as my true calling when I first got into the profession. I did like the idea of having summers off, and I thought it might be kind of fun having a job in which it would apparently be all right if I wore sandals and Hawaiian shirts to work, as many of my own professors did. Of course, when I got out of college and got a job here at SCC in 1991, the first two things they told me were, “You don’t get summers off, and you need to wear a tie to work.”

I thought, maybe I should have gone to law school after all.

But a lot of things have changed since then, and I have changed, too. I freely admit that I came to Southwestern with a definite stereotype about community colleges and community college students. I envisioned classes in which I would spend half the semester trying to get my students to recognize the fundamental difference between nouns and verbs. I envisioned pleading with my students to actually give this literature stuff a try. I figured I would have to bribe them to make a comment, any comment, in class, to participate even a little bit. I doubted anyone would ever ask a question, except for that old chestnut we all love so very much: “Mr. Cox, is this going to be on the test,” or, “Mr. Cox, I have to be out of town for most of March—will we be doing anything important?”

Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. The students here were indeed different than those I had taught as a graduate student. It’s not that the students I had at the university were bad students, slumped over in their chairs with hangovers, or disrespectful, antagonistic little brats possessed with a sense of entitlement. No, my recollection is that the students were, by and large, pretty good. It’s just that compared to the students I have had at SCC, I would not even really call them students. They were mostly just kids doing what was expected of them, actors playing the role of students to entertain their parents. They took notes, they composed papers that were precisely the right length, they studied for tests and passed them, they made the grade, and they moved on to the next rung on the ladder. They managed to do all of this without ever really stopping to ask why.

When I say they weren’t students, I mean that they were not in college for the express purpose of learning anything in particular. It was clear that the real goal was not to learn. It was to pass. They didn’t want to be students, they just wanted to be convincing in the role. And they were, or so I thought, until I arrived at Southwestern and taught my first class here.

Learning, not passing

When you are confronted for the first time by a classroom full of students who actually are expecting to learn, it is a terrifying experience, let me tell you. I realized fairly quickly that I had been playing the role of a teacher just as my university kids had been playing the role of students. I could have said anything in class, absolutely anything, and my students there would have written it all down feverishly, assuming it was important and that it would be on the test.

At the university, the students only wanted to know what. Here at SCC, as I quickly discovered, they wanted to know why. Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Here were students who actually wanted to UNDERSTAND the material and not just memorize it. Furthermore, they wanted to know why they actually needed to know it in the first place. WHY do I need to be able to write a persuasive paper? WHY do I need to read Shakespeare? What good are the liberal arts to someone who wants to be a nurse, or an administrative assistant?

From the teacher’s point of view, once you realize that these questions are sincere and not antagonistic, you must look into the abyss. The question is no longer why is the student here. They KNOW why they are here. The real question is, why are YOU here? What is the importance, the relevance of what you have to teach? Why should anyone care? Why should they be expected to learn it?

It was here at Southwestern that I discovered what real teaching is all about, and it is because of you people here in front of me that I was able to discover it. When people come together in a classroom and drop the roles they think they are supposed to play and, instead, engage in a genuine search for the truth, that is when magic happens. It is often exhausting, but always exhilarating, to be in a constant process of asking why, why, why, when you could so much more easily memorize whatever there is to memorize, pass the test, and move on.

Students who care

I love the students here at SCC and I always have. In my very first semester teaching here, sixteen years ago, I had a class that I can still remember vividly. It was the typical community college mix of younger and older students, students from a variety of different backgrounds and programs. We did our best to tackle American Literature that semester, and we discussed and debated and fretted over an array of topics and writers. On most days, the students would already be discussing the material before I got to class, and we frequently stayed around afterwards, continuing the discussion until the last person finally had to leave. One day late in the semester, one of the students showed up wearing a Walt Whitman T shirt. Touchdown!

Near the end of the semester, I fell into sort of a depression. I knew I would never have another class like that one, that I would never forget those students. I felt lucky just to have been a part of it. I was heartbroken to see them go.

Well, guess what? The next semester came, and I had another truly unbelievable class with a completely different group of students. The class was different in some ways—because all classes are unique, as you well know—but it was similar in the way that it challenged us all to squeeze every last drop of juice we could from it. Once again, at the end of the semester, I was depressed because I just knew with absolute certainty that I would never have another class like that one, and I knew for sure that I would never forget those students, and I haven’t.

This same exact pattern has been going on for sixteen years now, and every semester I am surprised all over again to find yet another amazing class filled with amazing students that I know I will never forget. Every person that you see sitting over to my right has a similar story, lots and lots of stories, I promise you. For all the many different reasons that we have all come here to teach, the reason we stay can be summed up in one word: you. We stay because you have taught us what it means to be a real teacher. You have challenged us, provoked us, compelled us to give you all we’ve got.

As you leave SCC now and go on to your other pursuits, let me in turn challenge you to never stop asking why, to never resort to playing a role, to never looking ahead to the end of the hour, the end of the day, the end of the week, or the end of the year. If you are NOT living fully in the moment, if you are not fully present in each moment of your own life, then you are not really living at all, but waiting. And what are you waiting for? If you ever should find yourself in a perpetual state of waiting, then you really must make some radical changes.

The students at SCC have made me want to live in the moment ever since I got here, to enjoy it all, to question everything, to squeeze all the juice out of it I can. I can only wish you the same richness in your life that you have given me, that you have given all of us.

And so I leave you now with this charge:

Do whatever you must to preserve your sense of wonder and joy in the world. Delight in small things. Exercise your sense of humor until it is in truly excellent shape. Take nothing, take no one, for granted.

Have dinner at the kitchen table every night, and go on as many picnics as you possibly can. Be a little unpredictable, be a little dangerous. Be a surprise to yourself.

Don’t let anyone tell you how to vote. Not Rush Limbaugh. Not Oprah Winfrey. Not anyone. Be informed, get involved, make your mark. As Walt Whitman said, “Sound your barbaric yawp across the roofs of the world.”

Every day, say something nice to a child. Go out of your way if you have to. Children are like little suitcases that we pack with things, and then they carry those things around with them the rest of their lives. Lighten their loads enough, and someday they may just fly.

If you want to do something, do it now, or as soon as you possibly can. If you want to see something, see it. If you want to be something, be it. Remember, if you are just waiting, you’re not really living.

So you better get on to those dance lessons. Plan that trip. Buy that banjo. Write that book.

Given what you have accomplished here, you of all people should know that great things are possible.

I hope you know how very special you have been to us here, to all of us. We are an open door institution, which means we give anyone who wants a chance a chance. We’ll let just about anybody in. But getting out, well, that’s another matter altogether. I know—we all know—how hard you have worked, what you have sacrificed, in order to wear those shiny blue robes. We know how easy it would have been for you to walk away, as so many do. We admire you for rising to the challenge we have put before you, and I can only hope we have risen to the challenge you put before us.

Class of 07, we cats dressed in black will remember you.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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