A speech delivered at the Fall 2017 Honor Roll Assembly, at the invitation of Student Council, by Jacob Steward, English Department Chair.
Good morning, everyone.
Thank you to STUCO for inviting me to share some of my thoughts on honor roll and academics with everyone today. First I’d like to congratulate all of the students on the honor roll today. Good job, everyone. I hope that this achievement signals that your efforts are producing results.
I do find it ironic to be standing up here to talk today. I haven’t been shy with my students in sharing my thoughts on grades: that ultimately, there’s a pretty decent amount of subjectivity in determining them, and that they are not what is important anyway. I’ve seen the barely disguised eye-rolls when I’ve pontificated about grades, and thank you for trying to suppress them, but I have seen. Oh, I have seen.
A quick note on the grades, themselves: To the teachers, grades are indications of the product of your work. That is, we don’t grade you, we grade your submitted assignments. I know, though, that you see your grades differently. When you’ve put a lot of yourself into your work, it is difficult not to see a grade as a measure of your own value, rather than that of your work. We understand that, and I hope you know that we value you. Immensely.
So I’m up here today to address all of you at an academic honor roll assembly. What I find almost satirical about this is that, when I was in school, I was a forgettably indifferent student. Oh, my grades were never too bad. Well, that’s not true. I’m trying to save face. Let’s say instead that my grades were never too bad before I got to college. There I had too much freedom, and too much general exhaustion with academics (seniors, while you might be looking forward to college right now, I just felt worn out by all of it, and the prospect of another four years of school...well, let’s just say that it wasn’t until after undergrad, after the Peace Corps, and after working a variety of odd jobs -- painter, bartender, B&B manager, substitute teacher, janitor, the list goes on -- that I went to grad school with a purpose, and was able to see the value of being there, rather than just resent spending more of my life in school). When I was in college, I just lacked a good reason to be in school, and that was not good for my academics.
But in high school, and junior high, I was fine. A couple of As, a lot of Bs, one or two Cs...it’s fair to say I was pretty middling about my time in the classroom. Back then, I lacked the perspective to consider why that was true. It just was, you know?
Now, though, I chalk it up to a lack of passion. I cared about my friends, my family, my dog, and then occasionally about school when the teacher made it interesting. When the homework was boring, dull, or too easy, I often simply didn’t do it. My poor parents were beside themselves trying to help me see the value in what I was doing.
Here, let’s take a look at my 8th grade end-of-year report card. My final grades show one A-, three B+s, two Bs, a B-, and a C+. All told my GPA was 3.4286, according to the grade report. There’s the irony I was talking about. I wouldn’t be on our honor roll here. Yet, here I am, standing in front of you. Oh, and want to see something amusing? Some of you might have noticed this already. My only C was in English.
So what happened? You might be regretting even asking me to come speak here today, now that I’ve revealed myself to you. STUCO, you may even feel that I’m some kind of an imposter.
The thing is, grades, in and of themselves, don’t mean a lot. Anyone who watches or plays sports will understand this: You don’t judge a player by one moment of a competition. You might see a runner lagging behind someone at any given moment of a race, but that doesn’t tell you who will win. You might see a player take a shot in a game and miss, but that doesn’t tell you that player is going to lose. We all know this, of course.
Similarly, grades tell us how well a student did on any one assignment (that time). They don’t tell us how you understand the subject (except by implication), how hard you worked (sometimes As come easy, and sometimes Cs come hard), what you do and don’t value, or how far you might go in the future.
To paraphrase the great physicist Amos Dolbear, inventor and winner of the 1898 “Most unusual Goatee” award: Everyone is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.
So, while today we celebrate academic results, we want to ask ourselves what we're doing it all for. (And, incidentally, this is the end of my introduction. Does my 15 minutes start now?)
Where is your passion? What matters to you? I hope that what motivates you is more than grades. Consider this: The youngest person currently enrolled at SBS turned 12 three months ago. For her, grades will matter for another 12 or so years (for our seniors, only another six or eight, at the most). That sounds like eternity to someone who is currently only 12; however, that same young student is expected to live, on average, into her 90s. So, she’ll have 12 more years when grades matter, and then about 70 years after that when grades won’t matter at all. Not a bit. Not one iota. I would imagine that not a person in this room had seen my junior high grades before today. Nor did they care.
So, when the grades have gone away what will you have left? Your passion. Passion for being the best version of yourself you can be, measured not against some arbitrary grade scale, imposed by someone else, but against your own sense of what matters. Evaluate yourself against the standards of what you value and hold dear, not for reward, but for your own self-worth. I don’t evaluate myself against my peers: the members of the English department. Think of how self-destructive that would be: to judge myself against these admirable people. I lack Karen Suchenski's passion for making the world a better place (Come on, you all know how it goes! “The community that serves together, stays together!”); I don't have Bill's compassionate understanding for all people, and his desire that you all see the value in yourself that he already sees in you; I can't compete with Mrs. Durrett's poise and answer for everything (go ahead, I dare you, students and faculty alike, to present her with a question and not receive a meaningful answer in reply. It’s spooky.), and how could I rate against Ms. Nader's academic accomplishment, raw intellectual power, and, of course, her style?
Comparing myself to them would be a mistake. I am clearly holding my own in beard growth, but...
So I have my own standards for myself. They are immutable and intrinsic to who I am. They involve words like integrity, compassion, honor, courage, and kindness. How can any of that be graded? Why would I let anyone tell me they know my value more than I do?
Congratulations to all of you who find yourself on honor roll today. It is an honor, and I am happy to have the chance to talk with you today about it. Measure what you’ve done against your own standard of what you hold dear. You are an amazing group of people, and that, frankly, has nothing to do with grades.