The Westfield Academy and Central School Class of 2013 is a very special one to me. On the last day of my career in 2007, I never really said, "good-bye," to you; departures are always hard for me. Whenever the year's end came, everyone in the building was ready to escape for summer fun. For me, though, there was always one more lesson, one more thing we really needed to do. So, in an effort to let you know just how important you are to me, below are three more mini-lessons. Two I learned years ago from WACS grads who are now nearing 50 or older. The third is one recalled by one of my students; it's one that helped him through a difficult time.
I'm bothering you with this because, despite time and distance, the bunch of you are still like family to me. As a student once quoted from Webster's, family is: "a: the basic unit in society traditionally consisting of two parents rearing their children; also: any of various social units differing from but regarded as equivalent to the traditional family." Or - and here is the one most applicable to the WACS Class of 2013 - "a unit of a crime syndicate (as the Mafia) operating within a geographical area." Well, most of you have been operating pretty well since kindergarten, and now, before you go out into the world, here are just a few words of unasked for advice to guide you along the journey.
All of these little stories here are the absolute truth. If I hadn't been there at the time, I wouldn't have believed that the first two were possible. Both humbled me, and their lessons stayed with me for the rest of my life.
Only the names have been changed to protect the guilty.
After finishing a unit on measurement in fifth grade math, it was time for assessment. I'd made my handy dandy little "ditto sheet," as still needed in the early 1970's. Line and figures required each child to measure with a ruler for accuracy. I'd passed out the sheets and rulers, and read the directions aloud. For the next two minutes or so, I paced up and down the rows of ambitious achievers. Until I stopped at "Kevin's" desk. He hadn't picked up the ruler, and was drawing pictures on the back of the paper.
I just lit into him. "Kevin, exactly what do you think you are doing? Can't you see that everyone is working hard right now, while you just sit here doodling your time away?"
He paused, and then looked up innocently at me, with his eyes tearing up. "But Mr. Seymour, I'm already done."
No, he hadn't used the ruler. He had just "eye-balled" the line segments and closed figures.
Kevin had done so on every answer, down to an eighth of an inch with 100 percent proficiency. I had met genius, and hadn't even recognized the secrets of it all right in front of me. The lesson I learned that day guided me daily; never underestimate the powers of a child. God's gift is wrapped in the potential of each and every one of us; so respect those of greater and lesser abilities than your own. For the surprises are found inside each and every one, and we are blessed if and when we have the chance to discover them wherever they may be. They might be right in front of you.
This next tidbit of experience is one that is, to me, perplexing to this day, though it occurred about 40 years ago. Had I not been there, I doubt I'd accepted its own truth.
"Connor" is a student who achieved at the "genius" level. In fact, his 156 out of 160 raw score in the standardized science test given that year was a bit low for him, although it put him in the 98th percentile.
Across the room, with a raw score of 155 sat "Mona." Mona had a wonderfully loud and contagious laugh that never stopped. What a joy it was to have her in my room that year. She was our sunshine. Yet, to put it bluntly, Mona could well be included with many of us who are "scientifically challenged." That's not a judgment call, but a fact. Still, her score, within one point of Connor's, led me to believe that something was askew. Was I such an incredible teacher that I had underestimated both her and my own abilities? I had to probe the possibility.
When I asked Mona how she could have done such remarkable work, she replied, "Oh, Mr. Seymour, I didn't know any of those questions. So I just drew a pretty little design in the bubbles on the answer sheet."
Now this goes beyond credibility, I know. But it taught me a valuable lesson. There is such a thing as good luck; and therefore, its counterpart, misfortune, must also be just as real. Fate will have its way with us, sometimes when we least expect it. Don't question it; just accept that what "is" is, and deal with what ever comes next. Maybe it is just God's way of having a little fun with this world.
Finally, this last mini-lesson involves a student whom I now consider a good friend. Somehow, I lucked out. That day I helped save him from the trauma of perfectionism. Carrying the weight of that for a lifetime can break you. Well, here's what happened.
Grades were posted, and report cards coming out soon. Often, when students were anxious and/or worried, we let them know ahead of time and privately what the quarterly averages were.
Tom was everything a fine student could be. He's smart, inquisitive, and introspective. That quarter, his average was an 88. I gave him the news, and he quietly went back to his seat. Soon, he was red faced, shaky, and his eyes began to water. I quickly asked him to step out into the hall, where he just began to fall apart.
"I just can't go home with an 88. My dad will be so mad at me. I have to have 90's, and high 90's mostly. How could I have an 88?" At this point he was starting to choke and hyperventilate. I knew the source of this pressure was him, not his father.
I was dumbstruck. To me, an 88 was reason to celebrate in and of itself. So, I said, "Tom, look at me. Remember. We're really here to prepare for life, not for seventh grade. And, in life, if 88 percent of your days are happy, positive, successful ones, then you have lived a very rewarding life. If only 12 percent of your time is spent with all the heartbreak and misfortune that comes with living, you will be among the most fortunate on this earth. So stop and think about how lucky you are. There are many who will go home today with far less, and for each of us, there are more difficult times ahead."
Well, it must've worked. He became a very successful college entrance administrator. Also, he went on to teach many administrators. He told me about 20 years later how he often used that little story in his college seminars.
I hope that maybe one of these will be a useful reminder to help some of you now graduating and moving forth in the 21st century. I only wish that I were there with you in June. I will think of you young men and women often. Remember, you have a friend in Colorado. One who just had a little more to say than he had a chance to do half way through your years of education at WACS. Best wishes to you all.