I have been teaching my moral reasoning / ethics classes at Polaris at Ebert Elementary School for seven years. The school is a magnet school in Denver, just a few blocks from downtown. The principal is Karin Johnson. I teach three fifth grade classes, each for an hour in succession. I have worked most closely with Mrs. Maria Abeyta. The other two fifth grade teachers are Mr. Lloyd and Mrs. Swift. Karin Johnson is a courageous educator in that she allows me to take the students’ time and talk about ethics and character, which are risky subjects in this day and age. Mrs. Abeyta is the kind of educator I wish every child in this country was blessed to have. The fifth grade class voted to have me give the continuation speech. The following is the speech I gave Wednesday morning, June 3, at Polaris at Ebert Elementary School.
In each of my first or second classes during my seven or so years here, I asked you to write who are your heroes.
Without exception, indeed, for over twenty years, you and other students have written “my parents,” sometimes an aunt or grandma; once, Martin Luther King.
And why did you select your parents?
Because, you said, they teach me what’s right and wrong; they teach me to be a good person.
Ten and eleven year olds saying they value above all receiving guidance to be virtuous.
You are rather stunning!
Why am I here this beautiful morning?
I must have the humility to acknowledge I am here` not because of who I am but because of what you value.
From hours of conversation with you, and from comments by Mrs. Abeyta, Mr. Lloyd, Mrs. Swift, principal Karin Johnson, your values became obvious to me: honor, integrity, achievement through work and effort and grit, a love for learning and respect and compassion for each other.
You are extraordinary young men and women.
You will be more extraordinary each day of your lives.
I walk into your classroom and am greeted by silence. You are reading; writing; studying.
I am in awe.
How is it I came to stay at Ebert these many years?
You trusted me. Mrs. Abeyta, Mr. Lloyd, Mrs Swift, Karin Johnson, your parents trusted me.
I am humbled.
We have talked about serious issues; moral dilemmas that have no clear answer: is it ethical to steal money to buy medicine to save a dying child? Maybe; maybe not. We look at the facts, yes?
We talked about behaviors that can have unexpected consequences; we talked about how to figure out what is right and what is wrong; what is good, better or best. How to make choices in a world flooded with ambiguity; how to make judgments, for the highest human duty is to judge, knowing that some things are better than other things.
You know the value of asking questions. You know to be cautious, even cynical. We have discussed how any subject can be taught unethically, even ethics. You have learned to ask critical questions regarding any idea or belief or information, such as, Why? Who benefits and who loses? Which beliefs advance individual liberty and personal freedom and which take them away? And you know that protecting liberty and freedom are the highest duties of free born people.
We talked about the morality of words: Shrek said ogres have layers and you have shown me you understand that words also have layers.
Tolerance, we discussed, for example, is not necessarily a virtue, because some things should never be tolerated and tolerance always favors the aggressor, never the victim.
We have had our disagreements. One of you yelled out, ‘He’s a lawyer. He just likes to argue!”
Has there ever a profession more misunderstood?
Sadly, in our culture now, teaching right and wrong, moral character, making judgments are incendiary topics. Thus, your parents and teachers are courageous.
Again, I am humbled to be here.
I shared with you a comment made years ago by another student, who said, Mr. Sabbeth, you know what I like about your classes? I said I did not. The student said, “You don’t treat us like children.”
One of you yelled out, “Yeah, it’s like kids’ menus. I hate kids’ menus.” I would not have figured that out on my own.
I have tried to engage with you at the highest level of respect, for I have learned years ago never to underestimate the wisdom of young people.
You showed you understand that success requires more than being smart; that success requires tenacity, grit, perseverance.
Success is achieved not by IQ but by ‘I can.’
You can because you think you can.
You have shown you have grit and tenacity; that you will not give up; that, in Churchill’s words, you will never surrender.
You have lived Aristotle’s observation: Excellence then is not an act but a habit.
Aristotle said that. I know. I was there. I have the video!
You have made a habit of achieving excellence.
I have marveled at the beauty, the poetry of your words; your compassion, your eloquence.
Sometimes, I will now admit, the beauty of your words did make my eyes a little bit watery.
You will succeed because you know you did not get here on your own. In Newton’s words, you have stood on the shoulders of giants, and those giants are your parents, your wonderful teachers and your families. I know you will find other giants and in time you will become giants.
You will succeed because you know that you will make mistakes. So what? You will make corrections. You will fall. So what? You will pick yourselves up up and, in Sinatra’s words, get back in the race. That’s life. You will fail, but you will learn from your failure and you will become stronger.
Remember the words I shared with you from my dear friend, Alice Abrams:
“In life, as in dance, grace glides on blistered feet.”
You are not afraid of getting blisters. You know blisters will heal.
You told me you would try, every day, to become stronger, because you know strong good people make the world a better place.
I have looked into your eyes.
I know you will meet that challenge.
To the parents and teachers, I admit I have had the fun part of this education experience.
To do good deeds is noble.
But to teach others to do good deeds is more noble.
It has been an honor to spend time with you. I have said several times, as I have said to every class in this remarkable school, being with you gives me optimism about the future. That’s not an easy achievement.
On this significant day of your continuation, one of many significant days you will have, I say with all my heart, I wish that your lives be drenched in joy, in humor, in fun, in beauty and in love.
It has been a joy to be with you.
Have a great summer.