Comments to Vermont Adult Learning Graduates 9/16/22

We’re here tonight to celebrate you and your achievements.

Yes, I did come to celebrate with you and to share some thoughts but I also came to learn from you and your experiences as you’ve advanced steadily on your own learning paths to get your degrees and honors today.

I’m also here because I’m a storyteller. I know some of you read my book “Lila & Theron” so you know my love of stories. I brought some extra copies as graduation gifts if you do not have a copy and would like one or have someone you would like to give one to. They’re my gift to you. I love stories and that’s why I am here. I want to hear from you as well.

But first, I’ll share with you my thoughts and then we’ll talk. I know we’ll learn much from one another. That’s how learning works. It is not a firehose from which one tries to drink. It’s a quiet stream in which we all swim together.

As a young person growing up in Morrisville, Vermont, I was blessed with teachers who held me to high account. They never made me feel less than I was, but they were demanding. They were also patient and kind. They wanted me to learn and to understand and they took what time I needed to ensure that I and my classmates were learning.

Seventy years ago, almost all grade schoolteachers were women. When I went away to boarding school at 13, all my teachers were men. Like the women, they were tough but caring. I was lucky. My parents valued education and educators and if I complained about school, they always sided with my teachers. In retrospect, they were right to do so, though it often hurt my feelings at the time.

When I graduated from UVM in 1969, I’d been going school during the day and working the night shift at IBM. I was 23 and married with two very young boys. I needed and got a job right out of college teaching French in Bristol at Mt. Abraham High School the year it opened. It was my first experience sitting at a teacher’s big desk at the head of the classroom instead of in it.

In my home room, I faced 23 students every morning and in the first few weeks, came to understand for the first time how challenging the school experience could be for so many.

I had a few kids who had been working since 4:30 in the morning helping their dads with milking and early morning barn chores, and they would often doze off in my class. I learned not to take it personally.

I had other kids who’d had no breakfast and were more interested in hot lunch than memorizing French irregular verbs.

I had one girl whose teeth were so badly decayed that she was in constant pain and secretly rubbed morphia that her grandmother had given her onto her gums from a small brown vial.

It was the first time I understood that to a child just surviving is more important than learning, and I had to recalibrate my understanding and love for the kids I came to know as family.

I understood that for the child who comes to school exhausted, in pain, hungry, lonely, or is subject to abuse at home, learning French wasn’t high on their list of life goals. I understood how life and circumstances, not lack of curiosity and desire to learn, can derail education. It made me a better teacher as I learned to focus on the child first and the lesson next. My partner in teaching became our school nurse.

Now you all have made this journey in spite of the many challenges life has put in your way. Your courage and life experience have informed who you are, and at some point in your life, your desire to learn emerged. It was always there but may have been sidelined by the circumstances life throws our way. Then, when you were ready, it was set free and you enrolled in VT Adult Learning, and we’re here to celebrate that tonight.

Know also that your courage and persistence have earned you new opportunities and better health and wellbeing regardless of your age or current circumstances. Education is integral to good health.

Also, your example is a beacon for those around you struggling with their own challenges. You’re a model and others will learn from your courage and the example you set.

If you’re a new American who recently arrived on our shores, welcome to Vermont. We’re not perfect here but we are a learning culture and revere and respect our small communities. You are welcome among us and you will enrich and strengthen our culture.

Like the road behind, the road ahead will not always be easy but you have acquired new tools, tools that will help you over the bumps ahead. And don’t let these degrees and honors tonight be an end unto themselves but rather an inspiration to keep on learning for the rest of your life.

You can continue your education institutionally. Take a look at Community College of Vermont. It has flexible pathways classes to advanced and specialty degrees in your local communities and online. They have the lowest tuition in the state and offer millions in scholarships like the special McLure Promise of a debt-free college degree.

VAL has taught you how to take lessons from what life has brought you. Use that knowledge wisely. Help and teach others and above all, enjoy life. You’ve earned it tonight.

Let’s also pay special attention to those of you being inducted into the National Honors Society. This is a tremendous achievement and I offer you my warm congratulations. This is an honor you have earned and one that will serve you well.

Finally, I would like to thank you for all that you have done and all that you have yet to do regardless of your age. You are a gift.

I would welcome hearing your personal story or any questions you may have about my own.

I applaud you.

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