I love teaching my public speaking class for a few reasons. One is that it's an all-ages, all-abilities elective class. I get to work with students bound for competitive colleges next year and students struggling with their first semester in high school. Demographically, it's as close to a cross-section of the school that I get to see outside the cafeteria: English-language learners, immigrants, honors students, seniors, freshmen, athletes, musicians, and drop-out risks share space, speak, and listen to one another.
The other reason is because it's a class that reminds me how important it is to listen to and learn from young people. I have a couple of assignments I especially look forward to every year. One comes after an often-contentious debate unit during which feelings inevitably get hurt and students find themselves on opposite sides of issues like immigration, reproductive rights, separation of church and state, and criminal reform.
This week, for the last two days, I've listened to my students pay tribute to important people in their lives. I start the unit with an example speech about my Papa, Lee Yardley. I tell stories about him, contrast his life with mine, and try to emphasize the lasting impact he had on my life. Then I give the assignment: a simple one, but one that usually finds vulnerable places in student's hearts and minds: "Your next assignment is to pay tribute to someone important in your life. Introduce us to this person through anecdotes and stories. Explain to us why this person is important to you and deserves tribute."
Then I listen.
And this is what I hear: young people who are often unfairly stereotyped as lazy, selfish, and spoiled celebrate the people in their lives who work and sacrifice and love with abundant hearts. They celebrate parents who flee danger to find better lives for their children. They shout out teachers who rally them from dark places and times. They celebrate siblings who fail and work to reform themselves. They testify their gratitude for siblings who anchor their otherwise chaotic lives. They praise their friends who love them when they feared they were unlovable. They sing the living and mourn the dead. They memorialize, laugh, and sometimes cry. The values they explicitly and implicitly champion are the same ones we all remember to honor at our best: humility, hard work, unconditional love, faith, charity, self-sacrifice, humor, generosity, bravery, defiance, resilience, dedication, and many others.
The assignment almost always refocuses the class as a community, but it also refocuses me and helps me remember that my job isn't commas and semicolons, rhetoric and literature. The best people in my life have been the ones who encouraged, supported, and affirmed me, even when I might not have deserved their good grace. To be reminded of that by the young people to whom we're entrusting our future is humbling and encouraging.