Archived Opinion

Students are searching for a good life

op classroomMy seniors are writing letters to themselves today, an activity I have students do every year just before the holidays. I will mail these letters to them, as I do every year, when they are 22, only five years in the future, but a universe away. The idea of the adults they will become receiving a letter from their former selves fires their imagination. They write and talk for the full period, describing friends, families, passions, habits to break, or, perhaps, habits to form. I watch them while they work, and on their faces is a pensiveness made of equal parts anticipation, hope, and uncertainty.

This is the last of the columns I will write about my students here at Swain County High School in this short series. The one certainty I have about them, and their main commonality, is that they want for themselves what their parents wanted, what their grandparents wanted: a good life. What differs among them are the resources their parents have provided that will either help or hinder them in attaining that good life.

In my early years of teaching, I read and believed that the essentials for producing a worthwhile adult were that a child have two committed parents, regular family meals, outdoor activities, and some kind of spirituality, religious or otherwise. The longer I’ve taught, however, the more anomalous families of that type have become. If the recipe for producing a successful human is limited to the four requirements I once believed in, if having only one engaged parent, (or none), and few to no resources means a lesser chance of becoming a good and positive person, then my classes should be filled with hopelessness. If wholesome family dynamics are the necessity for creating productive young people, then the state of public school classrooms should be one of listlessness and inactivity. And yet that is not the case. Although their lives are more difficult than the lives of students I taught 16 years ago, I find most adolescents to be optimistic, rather than jaded, even those who come from neglect, from abuse, from poverty, and from homes with no stable adult for miles and miles. 

The sad, hunchbacked 18th century writer, Alexander Pope, penned the famous lines: Hope springs eternal in the human breast/ Man never is, but always to be blest. When my classes began writing letters to themselves more than a decade ago, their conversations were much the same as the talk among these 12th-graders this morning. They wanted to get an education, to help their parents, to be with someone they loved, and, almost always, to become better adults, perhaps, than what they had seen. The dreams and fears they write today will rest in self-addressed envelopes inside a file folder that I will store until this festive season five years hence. On the day I send the letters, they will go out, as do my students, into the always unknown but endlessly hopeful universe. 

(Dawn Gilchrist is a writer and teaches English in Swain County. She can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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