As you lie in your beds on this – the night before the first day of school – I know you are dutifully trying to sleep despite the anxious thoughts creeping through your minds. I promise when we walk through those double doors tomorrow, you will forget all the doubts and fears that are keeping you awake tonight.
But before the alarms go off at ungodly hours, before you greet your teachers with soft smiles and hugs, before you slide back into the easy banter with your friends, before the bell rings signaling both an end and a beginning, I want to tell you what I hope you will do this year.
Listen to what people are saying, but also what they are not. Listen to the way they are holding their bodies, the timbre of their voices, and the expressions on their faces. There is a difference between hearing and listening. Words are important – goodness knows I have tried to instill that in you – but they are not always the whole story.
Listen to ideas and opinions that might not jive with what you think. We only learn what we truly believe by listening to voices that are different from our own, even if we don’t agree with them.
Listen to your instincts. You are still unsure of them and that’s okay. That is part of growing up. But in order to learn how to trust yourself or anyone else, you need to listen to the voice in your head that tells you what is right and what is wrong.
Look not just at your papers and your books and your collection of sharp new pencils. But also look beyond what is in front of you. Look at the world around you and see both its splendor and its failures. Look for the boy who wanders at recess because he doesn’t have a group to belong to. Look for the chances to help before anyone asks. Look for the other people who are helping too. Look for the lost, the scared, the lonely. Look for love. Never look the other way. Even if it is easier.
Look not just with your eyes, but with your heart. Your heart will always tell you things your eyes cannot see.
Don’t be afraid to feel excited or scared or nervous. That’s just your body’s way of telling you that it needs some time to digest what is happening around it, in it.
Feel the stories of history you read. Feel the rhythms and colors in the art you create. Feel the electricity of learning something you didn’t know before. Don’t rush through a moment – live it, feel it, be part of it.
There are rules that need to be followed. In school, in friendships, in life. Resist the impulse to simply dismiss them as arbitrary and ask yourself what the purpose is. Chances are, if you really think about it, you’ll figure it out. And in doing so, you will engage in intellectual rigor that many adults have forsaken.
If it still doesn’t make sense, ask someone. Ask me. Questioning a rule or the status quo doesn’t make you insubordinate. It means you are thinking. It means you are willing to consider the possibility that we can be better than we are.
Question yourself. Not your abilities, of which there are many. Not your self-worth, which I hope is never in doubt. But always question whether you are using those abilities to be part of the good. Whether you define your worth by the right things.
Great change occurs when people have the courage to question themselves as much as they question the world around them.
No, really. Fail. Forget your homework, make mistakes, get the answer wrong, have a bad day.
Failure has become a dirty word in our lexicon but I think it is a beautiful one. Because here’s what no one will tell you: You will never reach a point in your life where you stop failing at something. What matters is what you do with that failure. And now is the time to learn.
Success is not determined by a grade on a report card. Success is being able to say, on the whole, I am better than I was before.
Believe in your teachers, in your friends, in us, in yourself.
Believe that everyone else is listening and talking and looking and questioning and failing and believing too. And they’re doing all of it a hundred times a day.
Believe that you – that we – are all in this together. Believe that we will succeed only in so much as we believe that our sum is greater than our parts.
I’m not going to lie and tell you any of this is easy, that grownups don’t struggle with these very things too. But here’s the thing. You never have to be perfect. You just have to try.
Oh and one more thing – love hard. If you learn anything this year, let it be this. It is the only thing we take with us when we leave this world, and the only thing we leave behind.