An Open Letter to My Brother on His College Graduation

Dear Adam,

Congratulations, baby bro. You did it. And your family are so, so proud of you.

I missed your graduation because I’m half a world away but all of our grandparents were there and that’s more important. I’m proud of you because I know you worked hard, took chances, made choices, and had adventures. Our grandparents are schepping nachas because you were their first boy and no one knew what to make of you, but everyone loved you immediately. Everyone continued to love you as you grew into the cheerful, funny, passionate person that you are. And look at where you are now. I’m so glad they were there.

I couldn’t be there but I’m thinking of you. I know you have a good head on your shoulders and that’s why there are things I want you to know. Putting my educator hat on, I will say that I wish they’d taught you differently in school. You graduated from an undergraduate business program, after all, and I wish they’d taught you about things that matter. You know you’re supposed to go into the world and make money, with which you’re then supposed to do . . . something. Make more?

But as your older sister, and as person who shares the planet with you and identifies in relation to you, there are a few things I want you to know:

  1. You will always have my love and support, in any way you need it and at any time of night or day. Just call and I’ll be there.
  2. It’s important to take care of yourself. It’s important to eat well, sleep well, and make the time for things that matter. Work can wait, even if it’s just for a few minutes. You can’t do the work if you’re not healthy.
  3. The world is full of choices and they only get bigger as you gain life experience. Make the choices that will help you become the person you want to be. Surround yourself with people who will help you grow.
  4. It’s hard to ask difficult questions and even harder to answer them. Think and feel deeply. Consider the questions, “Who am I? What am I?” Consider them over and over and over. Act accordingly.
  5. You will make many, many mistakes. You will hurt people without knowing you did. You will be hurt. You will cry. And you will learn. Learn from your mistakes and experiences and let them make you a better person.
  6. Beauty is easy to pass by. Don’t. Really, actually, stop and smell the flowers. Spend thirty seconds just looking at a tree. Dance in the rain. Climb the mountain. Look around and protect the simple things – they matter.
  7. Remember that small acts create big ripples. It’s not hard to remember a birthday or write a note or say hello to someone new, but all of those things make a difference. Make them part of who you are.
  8. It’s okay to stop. It’s okay to decide this isn’t working and do the difficult thing and walk away. It’s okay to start over. It’s okay to try something completely new. This is how we learn and grow.
  9. Speak up for what matters to you. It’s one thing to grumble in private and quite another to stomp your feet in public. Stomp your feet and behave with integrity.
  10. The most important thing is to be a good person. Money can wait. Buying a house can wait. Your new avalanche skis can wait. Be a good person. That cannot wait.

Congratulations again. Take some time to celebrate . . . and now go change the world.

I love you,

Rebecca Michelle

On Human Dignity

When I stand in front of you, I am there because I have a right to be. I need no permission and no justification. I am there and so are you.

Which is all you need to see in order to treat me with the dignity I deserve. And I deserve it not because you think so, but because I am there. And so are you.

When you stand in front of me, my only response is to look you in the eye, acknowledge your presence, and treat you with the dignity you deserve. You deserve it because you are human.

Which is all I need to see in order to treat you the way that I, too, have a right to be treated. Because I am human.


I am really, really disturbed. I am scared. I am angry. And so in my own way, I am screaming. Once again, bodies are a topic of discussion in the United States. The women whose bodies these are have been deliberately left out of the conversation. Their agency has been stolen. Their life experiences devalued. And their dignity? Their humanity? Purposely not acknowledged because that would destroy the whole thing.

As a teacher and learner of psychology, I can explain the mechanisms of group cohesion, kinship selection, stereotyping, and self-concept that are at play here.

But as a human, I cannot understand it.


When I was a child, we learned the Golden Rule of treating others the way you want to be treated. One year when I was teaching middle school, my students scoffed at my outdated notions of behavior. It was passé, they made quite clear, to only consider myself when deciding how to treat others. The Platinum Rule, I was told, was to treat others the way they want to be treated.

I smiled at the time, enjoying the moment where students are strong enough to stand up to a teacher when they deem it important. But I had a problem with this idea then and I have a problem with it now.

When you don’t think of others as having human dignity, you cannot treat them the way they’d want to be treated because you fail to see them at all.

Of course, the goal is to view every individual as having dignity merely on the basis of being human. But for those who choose not to do that, at least treating another the way you’d want to be treating forces you to recognize that they have dignity because you do. While this differs dramatically from someone’s having dignity because they do, it’s a start and it’s better than indifference.


In a better world, my students would be right. We should treat others the way they want to be treated because they have dignity. Because they are human. Because they are.

I am an educator because I believe in that world. But I am writing this blog post because I am human and I am screaming.

Educating

I tend to refer to myself as an educator rather than a teacher. Although I implicitly know the difference, a few conversations last week prompted me to articulate an explanation for the distinction.

Defining

According to Merriam-Webster, to teach means “any manner of imparting information or skill so that others may learn”. It has an Old English root meaning to show or instruct. By this definition, sometimes I teach. Sometimes I explicitly show my students how to do something. Sometimes I also instruct them in what to do when completing a task, which is also known simply as giving instructions.

But more often, I aim to educate. To educate, according to Merriam-Webster, “implies development of the mind” to which Google clarifies, “intellectual, moral, and social instruction”. The etymology of this word comes from the Latin word educere, to lead forth. From here I conclude that educating means raising good people who can live and be well.

People-building Revisited

I’ve written before about what I think of as people-building. In that post, I focused on the importance of asking young people who they want to be. I wrote about asking students why they have certain goals and I argued that understanding why can lead us to who – the type of person who does those things.

These are important conversations that educators need to have with their students.

In wanting my students to grow into good people, I try to take the time to talk with them about who they are and who they want to be. It’s a joy to ask students about their dreams and aspirations not only in terms of next year or the following year but in terms of ten years down the road (thank you to the friend who suggested this guiding question). I end up learning a lot more about them than I could have otherwise and acknowledging students as people who matter is important.

But there’s a lot of resistance. With the very real pressure of coursework and exams it can be really difficult to talk with my colleagues about the big picture. There’s a lot of resistance to taking time away from learning, as people claim, but there are clear points at which meaningful learning actually happens. What do you remember from high school? I want to ask my colleagues who roll their eyes. What did you learn in your classes?

I learned some content but I also learned how to live. And I remember the teachers who helped me grow as a person.

In high school, I learned that Doc Lo Re loved chemistry because it helped her understand the world. I learned that Miss Rabinowitz read voraciously because she found words beautiful. I learned that Mr. Khort was tough when he knew you could rise to the challenge and that Mr. Menchel kept his promise to be there in a crisis.

I remember who they taught me to be.

It is from my teachers that I learned to seek understanding of the world and my place in it. I learned to ask questions; I learned to look for and find beauty everywhere; I learned a way to hold those I love in palms of my hands; I learned the importance of actions.

I learned from the teachers who saw me as a person and wanted me to live well.

Educating

If educere means leading and educate means developing aspects of the mind, we need to spend more time thinking about what we want our students to walk away understanding. Not knowing but understanding. If a student never sets foot in a humanities (or science or literature or math) class again, what do we want them to understand about the world around them?

And then, equally importantly, how are we going to lead them there?

These are questions that teachers (note the word choice, please) don’t ask. Teachers talk a lot about what they want students to know by the end of a lesson, unit, or project, but rarely about what they want students to understand about the world they live in. Teachers rarely talk about the world at all.

If we want to educate, to lead our students forward, we need to be much more deliberate in our intentions. We need to ask why certain things matter to them and we need to ask who they want to be today, tomorrow, and ten years from now. We need to know what they love and why they’re doing what they’re doing. We need to know what matters to them.

Developing the mind is a lifelong process and it happens with or without thoughtful consideration.

So let’s be purposeful. We are, after all, raising young people. And we need to lead them with care so that they grow as good people who can live and be well, and who help make the world a better, more peaceful place.

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place