A letter to my students

Friday, 8 July 2016

‘It set him free,’ said Lee. ‘It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man.’
‘That’s lonely.’
‘All great and precious things are lonely.’
‘What is the word again?’
Timshel—thou mayest.’

― John Steinbeck, East of Eden

* * *

Last night I was thinking about your graduation, and I fell asleep thinking of smoothing the world out for you. Quite literally. I had a dream in which I was ironing out white sheets – sheet after sheet, endlessly. And then I realised the sheets were the world. It is a lovely metaphor, clean and simple. But we know life is rarely either.

To use another metaphor, I wish sometimes the world was like a slot machine in which you could insert things like passion, spirit, compassion, enthusiasm, and receive your reward, neatly packaged up. But it isn’t. And to be honest with you, you probably don’t want it to be. The best things have come to me through anger, frustration, exhaustion, and sacrifice. Including this job and getting to meet and teach you.

This is a short letter; no doubt you will hear many words of advice in the coming weeks as you supposedly ‘enter’ the ‘real’ world. My view is that you are already a part of it. I hope the degree you have earned will help you navigate this world in which you live, and love, and get angry. But most of all, I hope it has given you a deeper sense of your worth. You are more than a job, a salary, or a social status marker. You are a human being. It has been a privilege knowing you, because you are such excellent human beings – flawed and fantastic like the rest of us.

Thou mayest, and thou can, and thou should – or, to use another one of my favourite lines ever, ‘To burn always with that hard gem-like flame and to maintain this ecstasy is success in life’ (Walter Pater). Don’t lose your flame, whatever you go on to do.

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