One Final Lesson for the Class of 2010

Northwood High's Class of 2010 graduates

My son Alex graduated from high school last night.  It marked a moment of satisfaction for my wife and I that our choice to live in Irvine upon moving here 13 years ago was a good one.  We came here simply because we believed Irvine offered the best public school system in Orange County.  It does and, as I have discovered, quite a bit more.

For the Northwood High Class of 2010, the students chose Jim Mamer, a history teacher who is retiring, to deliver remarks for the class.  Mr. Mamer’s address was simply one of the best and most profound commencement speeches I have ever heard.  Too often, the debate on public education centers around complaints about the teacher’s unions or “high” salaries paid to teachers for working less than an 8 hour day with summers off.  Those who truly care about education know this is complete bull — teaching is often considerably more than an 8 hour day and it’s not something anyone does for the money. 

I reached out to him this morning and he’s permitted me to share his remarks with our readers.  The speech is written for the ear, so please, no criticism of a teacher using incorrect style.  I did fix a few things, but this document was meant to be read aloud not on a blog.  That said, I’m very pleased people like Jim Mamer chose to be a teacher. It’s clear he’s made a significant difference in the lives of so many of my neighbor’s children.   

Here is what he had to say:


Parents, Faculty, and Graduates.

I have confession to make. I’m beginning to feel – well – somewhat past middle age. Partly this is because I started teaching before any of you, in this graduating class, were born. Partly it is that I started teaching in Irvine when some of your parents were in my classes.

Recently, this has happened with enough frequency that I began to fear that if I didn’t leave soon I was bound to have a student tell me that her grandmother had been one of my students.  So, we get to leave together. I am graduating with you.

There have been signs that my time had come. A couple of months ago, in a section of 10th grade Humanities-History, as the students entered the room, I did what I normally do and listened to whatever they talked about. I overheard one discussion of someone… someone, it seemed who was a friend of the student talking, who would now be able to buy health insurance despite a “preexisting condition.” Now, as anyone who has ever been in one of my classes knows: I never like to start class on time. (It seems so mechanical, so impersonal.) So I asked who and what they were talking about. One student answered, “A friend of my family.”   I asked about his condition and, for some reason, I asked how old the person was. The answer came quickly, “I think, he is about middle age.”

Still not wanting to start class in the middle of a conversation, I continued…    “What does that mean?” The student looked back at me, obviously thinking, and finally said, “About 20. He’s about 20 years old.”

The following day, at the start of another class, I commented on a student’s hair. It looked nice. The student said thanks, but said that she thought she had “too much hair” too thick and too curly so she had put it in a ponytail! I added, for no reason of importance that, I once had a ponytail. And that when my hair was long it was also curly so I remember how useful a ponytail was at keeping hair out of my face. She looked at me skeptically and said that my hair didn’t seem curly. I reminded her that I no longer had long hair and what I have is about an inch long. Then she said, sympathetically, (and this is a direct quote). “Actually, I think you have a surprising amount of hair for someone of your age.”

As much as I would like to continue to tell stories – it isn’t going to happen. I don’t want to be too serious, after all this is a celebration, but I wish I could say that I am leaving at a time when I’m not as worried as I am about where we are headed. I’m not referring to the economy – I don’t have that much time.  I’ll stick to the pressures on education. Specifically, pressures that you might not be aware of and pressures that I think you can all help to counteract. Even if only by constantly asking questions… and voting… Given who I am and what I teach, I’m most concerned about the future of the Arts & Humanities. And my concern spreads to the colleges most of you will be attending.

It is possible that many of you haven’t noticed what has been happening… because all of you – who have attended Irvine schools, have attended schools with a variety of opportunities.

This has been a wonderful thing, but it is important to realize that Northwood is an exception and something you should be thankful for. I know that I’ve been lucky to work here – where this community, where you parents, have continually attempted to fill the gaps left by what has been continually cut by the state. Let me cite some of the numbers:

In the last year… The Irvine Public Schools Foundation contributed over $1.5 million dollars to the district as a whole. At Northwood, in addition to money contributed from the Irvine Schools Foundation, Booster organizations contributed

Almost $150 THOUSAND dollars to athletics. Almost $80 THOUSAND to Instrumental music, and about $40 THOUSAND to Choral music. To quote Zach Halop “only with the parents and boosters have we been able to build a program in which our community could be justifiably proud.”

So because of community contributions you graduates have had extensive programs in sports, music, and theatre. Can you imagine how different the last four years would have been without these? All these contributions have been essential in preserving what we have been able to offer. For that you parents and the Irvine Public Schools Foundation deserve all of our thanks. I’m not pretending that we can’t improve, but Northwood has been a wonderful place to teach. And your class (with a special thanks to my advisees) has made my life better.

But unfortunately, schools, colleges and universities across the country are still facing constant calls for budget cuts – The cuts get larger and larger with every crisis – and the suggested remedies become more and more frightening.  One “remedy”, that you are all aware of, is the extremely rapid increase in the costs of college; but unfortunately that is only one example. Many proposed changes are more fundamental than finance. The pressures now are on how this society views education. On what is important. On what needs to be taught.

I can only briefly summarize these. But I do so with the hope that you will all decide to be engaged in this debate – to create a discussion where there is none.

We are not helpless unless we want to be.

First of all, consider how we have come to measure educational success…

There is an increasing reliance on mostly state approved multiple-choice exams.

These may seem harmless enough, but when you consider what is tested, and what is not, they have serious consequences.

I don’t have to explain the rush to state sponsored, multiple-choice, easy-to-score, illusions of accountability. (But if any parents or relatives are not sure what I’m talking about – ask any of the graduates to explain.)

I’ve learned a lot in 35 years of teaching from you and from students who came before. You have taught me that beyond any doubt real learning is more complex than is the ability to pick out the correct answer from a short list.

Nevertheless, about a month ago, the Governor of Colorado signed a law that ties teacher evaluations, in that state, to the “progress” of their students. The pressure on other states is considerable.

There is nothing wrong with measuring progress. Nothing wrong with accountability…

The question is: Accountability in what?

These state exams do NOT measure progress in love of learning, they do not measure progress in imagination or artistic achievement, not progress in music, not progress in increased scientific curiosity, or in an increased commitment to human rights, or in confidence gained, or in stories written.

None of that is sufficiently easy to measure.

The tendency to see schools, colleges and universities, as businesses has led to a focus on what most clearly results in immediate economic reward. While economic growth is important – a myopic fixation on the short-term has consequences.

Just last week, the LA Times ran a front page story asking if a college degree is still worth the cost!

And recently there has been serious talk of encouraging new college students to choose a major, to focus early, and to graduate in 3 years. I realize that there are real reasons for some to finish in 3 years, but most of the articles I’ve read suggest students refrain from taking classes that don’t apply directly to a career.

Don’t do it. If you can afford it – explore whatever interests you. Learn another language and spend a year abroad. Take a few courses in philosophy or in ethics along with the courses in accounting and microbiology.

Life right after high school, in college or not, should be a time where it is normal to discuss random topics all night long – stopping only when the sun takes away the dark and reminds everyone that a new day is coming.

What I want you all to notice about this more “efficient” educational future is that whatever remains untested, or whatever is not immediately applicable to a career, BECOMES unimportant.

The Humanities and the Arts, creativity and music, are being diminished at every level.

Consider how many times you have heard reference to a crisis in Math and Science. ……. … vital subjects that we, at Northwood, do a great job teaching.

But how many times have you heard it reported that, as a country, we suffer from a crisis in the study of history and literature and music?

I keep waiting – but such a News report suggests a comedy skit more than a serious warning.  

Without much discussion, without any discussion, we are allowing decision makers, WE are allowing others, to discard programs that develop skills that I believe are needed to make life richer, foster an appreciation for diversity, and discard programs that, I think, are needed EVEN to keep democracy alive.

I ask each of you – graduates, educators, and parents – remain concerned with our collective future by, at least, being wary of these reactionary pressures toward educational efficiency.

Significant learning is often accidental.

As voters, as college students, as citizens, … Don’t limit yourselves to what is immediately rewarded.

Reach out and stretch yourselves.

Demand accountability in more than what can be measured with scan-trons.

Demand accountability in increased love of learning.

Demand accountability in increased commitment to human rights.

Demand accountability in imagination and music. And please, if only to make me happy, refuse to engage in discourse and argument by slogan and stereotype.

Who knows where that might lead?