Below is the speech Middle School Humanities and English teacher, Jon Greenberg, gave at the 2022 8th Grade Promotion. You can watch it in full here.
We started with ties.
It was September of 2019 and the sixth grade was having their first classes of the year. My students immediately become familiar with the wordplay that helps me define the course I was introducing. Humanities, I explain, is about human ties, about the things that bind us together, the things that we have in common with each other, the things that make us human. To bring the metaphor home I brought out my father’s collection of bow ties (my father was a dapper fella, a penchant evidently not tied to heredity. My best friend in middle school used to say that I always looked like I just got out of gym glass and even though physical education has not been part of my life for over 50 years I still somehow bring rumpled and disheveled to an art form each and every day) I handed one tie to each member of the class, had them grab hold of one end and the person closest to them grab the other so that they became one connected circle. “These ties that bind us now represent our shared, common experience,” I explained. “You’re all starting at a new school and in the same class. This experience ties you together, it creates an instant bond.”
We then did a team-building exercise by getting into alphabetical order without letting go of the ties. The conversation and contortions that followed revealed the group’s natural leaders, the thinkers, the talkers, the observers, the gigglers, the shy ones, the scared ones, the confused, and the too cool. I remember that day vividly because I was so optimistic about the group. I liked the way you joined together to complete the task. I enjoyed the banter that accompanied the exercise. The whole show felt like it was going to work.
It is important to note that at this time Trump was still President. The Pats were starting the season as defending World Champions with Tom Brady still at the helm. Mass shootings in El Paso Texas and Dayton Ohio had half the country calling for common sense gun laws while the other half thought it “too soon” to respond to the tragedies and cradled their weapons like innocent babes.
What we didn’t know was that a few weeks later someone would get sick in China. Soon we were being warned about a coronavirus that was sweeping through Wuhan. By the new year, a few cases had reached Washington state. All no big deal, right? Other side of the world, right? But we are far more connected than we realized. By March, my sixth graders were finishing up their Lords of Language models when Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, and Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz announced to the world they had contracted Covid 19. School immediately shuttered (how could we learn when Tom Hanks had Covid?) It was the day before spring break was scheduled to start and none of us had a clue that we wouldn’t see each other in the flesh again for almost six months.
Those ties that connected us were stretched to their absolute limits. We couldn’t be together. We were all isolated in separate spaces, waiting for some magical all-clear that still really hasn’t arrived. Two weeks later school became one giant Google Meet. I would start and end the day with my advisees, and try to put enough energy into all interactions throughout the day so that maybe, just maybe, the experience wouldn’t be as soul-sucking as it felt. But the ties we had established were just strong enough to get us through that school year. At the same time, new ties were being formed because we were all going through the same things: isolation, fear, boredom, and Tiger King. That somewhat toxic mix has left its mark on all of us. It is something we will always share. We all got cheated out of a normal end to a school year, a time when it is often the most fun and effective because we all know each other so well.
September again arrived with something called a hybrid model and about 25 new students joining the party. Or should I say lack of party? Fun was definitely taking a back seat to safety at every turn. We were masked, distanced, and washing our hands like surgeons on a battlefield. “On your dots, everyone. On your dots” “Spread out, spreeeeaad out.” I worried how you guys would ever bond. We had remote students, multiple spaces in which we were to simultaneously teach, and a pedagogical challenge no one had ever faced before.
I decided to take my show on the road and taught in areas large enough to house all members of the class, rather than the two-space solution the school’s dimensions dictated. This meant we were outside or on the design level almost every day, sometimes without a screen, others without a whiteboard. But always in masks. It took me a few months to come to grips with the fact that I hadn’t seen a child smile all year. There is nothing more beautiful than a smile, especially on a soon-to-be or recently turned teen’s face, braces and all. They can be rare indeed in the company of adults at that age. I hope I made you smile a few times last year. Lord knows I and all my incredible colleagues tried. We just couldn’t see you do it.
As we sweated through election week, especially the half dozen or so of you that met for our weekly elective, I could sense that our shared experience was making inroads on our Covid challenges. Oh I would still leave the remote kids staring at the Design Level ceiling, and I didn’t know what half the class looked like because of the masks, but our shared experience, the seeds of which were planted when you got in alphabetical order while holding my father’s bow ties, was bonding us. Proof that the ties were deep came for me in February of 2021. I was dealing with some challenges outside of school, the type of thing every life faces when the happy tedium of normalcy is uprooted by unexpected and jarring circumstances. (That, my friends, is real life.)
Now I’m old school to the max. I don’t miss work no matter what, so I came in every day and put on a happy face. I thought I was doing a pretty good job of it too, but that week my 7-1 section got together and wrote me a note, signed by the entire class, that said they sensed I was a little off and they wanted to let me know how much they appreciated me being their teacher. You kids have no idea what that note meant to me at that vulnerable moment. I can still choke up at the memory. It made me feel the ties that bind us all the more and inspired me to try to take care of you the best I knew how. I worried about each and every one of your’s social-emotional health. Academics? Who knew what to expect? I only knew we were all going through something that we’ll always remember, a time you’ll tell your kids about, a time, that quite frankly sucked. For my generation, those moments were national traumas like the JFK and MLK assassinations, moments of sudden upheaval. For you, it’s been a two year slog of testing, masks, distance, vaccines, and Zooms. It left you kid starved and wary, antsy and angsty. That impact is likely to echo for a while as it will for the entire planet. For Covid revealed in stark detail how interconnected we all are. A person gets sick in eastern China and five months later the world stops. Supply chains are interrupted and products disappear from shelves until they return at an inflated price. We, humans, are dependent on each other in so many ways. The phones you use to socialize, the vehicles you took to get here, the food you put in your mouths are all the result of the efforts of thousands of people you’ll never know but on whom you deeply rely.
They are all people we are tied to.
And here’s the thing, some of those people believe the 2020 election was stolen and the Jan 6 rioters are heroes. People who think that the government is a conspiratorial enemy bent on replacing them. Some know for certain that climate change is a hoax and the internal combustion engine and coal mining are essential to economic health. Yes, we are tied to all these people. We might not agree with them but they drive our trucks, build our homes, run our businesses, feed our families and protect our streets. And we have to, you have to, figure out how to start with the ties that bind us rather than define everyone through the narrowness of shared or unshared beliefs. We need us all to truly succeed.
So what does all this high-minded stuff have to do with you? To strengthen all our ties we have to create common ground and that starts with the way we relate to each other here. When your teachers put you in groups do you extend yourself to connect with a classmate who might not be your friend? Do you think, “Let’s do the best we can together” or are you thinking about who you’re not with? The friendships you have made, and the strong ties you have knotted, are wonderful things to be nurtured and savored. I love watching you find your fit and the way your friendships morph and mature over the years. But these bonds can’t be exclusive contracts that demand 24/7 attention. Most of the time you’re just playfully sniping at each other anyway. Keep a little of yourself to explore who everyone is. You’ll be surprised what you don’t know about them. Next year you’ll have 40 or so new faces to get to know, to tie into the culture of your grade. Many of those faces will become your best friends if you let them.
I’m not saying you have to like everyone. You don’t have to agree with them, you don’t have to hang out with them, and you can even hate them if you want. But you should still care about them. Why? Because we’re connected. Their health is our health. If you care, if you communicate that care, maybe we will stop being a nation of whiners and become a people who work for solutions
So go the musings of your aging speaker. That you felt you wanted to hear from the oldest goat around these fairgrounds demonstrates that you can feel a bond with almost anyone. I am from a different century. I don’t post what I’m doing or share what I’m eating nor do I understand why anyone would care. I listen to Ella and Duke, not Olivia or Bruno. I actually like black and white movies and have never taken a selfie. I’m a relic, but still, we have enough in common to be tied together to the point that you wanted to hear from me today. I’m honored to be the one standing here, especially since there are so many others amongst my amazing colleagues who have so much to offer. I’m just the smallest wisp of a little dot at a small school, in a mid-sized state of a challenged nation on a small orb in a substantial galaxy in an ever-expanding universe of galaxies that shares existence with infinite other universes. But this little dot has been able to thrive because of the ties that bind me, that give me purpose, that support and inspire, that make it possible to get up every morning and try to leave everyone I meet and every place I stay a little better than I found them or it. The ties that bind us make life worthwhile. To strengthen the ties you have and add new ones. The more you have, the higher you’ll be lifted. The more united we are, the stronger we will be.
Now there’s a typical structure to promotion speeches that I’m in the midst of butchering. You’re supposed to start with a hook, usually a joke or something surprising. I recently attended my daughter’s college graduation where the phenomenal founder of Black Votes Matter, Latosha Brown began by singing “This Little Light of Mine”. I was tempted to steal that idea, but she had been a professional singer and I’m not sure an old white jew singing gospel works, do you? The song idea wilted and since you were my 19th sixth-grade class, I thought I might get a laugh with a list of the greatest 19s of all time, but Ann Bevan wisely suggested axing such folderol. I will say, though that our 19th president was Rutherford B. Hayes and he had by far the best sideburns of all our chief executives.
After the hook, you’re supposed to thank everyone in attendance, as many by name as you can, remark on the glory of the day and laud the accomplishments of our eighth graders. So I will: Here’s what you did: you just completed the most awkward stage of your life(I know a precious few people who wish they were 13 again) while abiding a life-altering pandemic and you’ve survived to tell about it. That’s pretty strong stuff, and a strength that I pray you will carry forward into your future. Some of you will be leaving us after today. The rest of you are taking that long 120-foot walk to the upper school wing.
No matter where you are going, the ties that bound us these three years remain. They always will.
To commemorate what we have shared, to honor our ties, to remember today and the collective strength that has gotten you here, I have a little souvenir for each of you. They ain’t gorgeous, but they are survivors. So too are all of you and we’re dam proud to share this day with you.
Thank you and please take a tie.