As the school year concludes, allow me to share my June 4th remarks to the Needham High School graduating Class of 2012. Here’s hoping we all have an opportunity to get lost this summer, if only for a little bit.
Members of the class of 2012: Get lost!
No really, I mean it. Get lost! Tomorrow, next year, and for the rest of your life, make sure you take time to turn left when you should go right; turn off the GPS every once and a while; ignore your schedule on occasion; wander off the path a bit; go solo when the crowd is pressing on you to head one way; strike up a conversation with the loner in the back of economics class everyone else ignores…Just take off to parts unknown and go get lost. I am encouraging you to get lost in order to live and experience a full life, a life of learning, of laughs, of creativity and self-discovery.
So, go ahead, Get lost!
I know…the predictable and planned is comfortable and secure. It’s easier and less messy to stick to the script and talk to the same friends and tread the same route others have. It is safer, saner, and simpler to stay within the confines of a college or career plan that ensures smooth, uncomplicated, and conventional success. The rewards seem certain; the obstacles few and nothing is daunting.
But if you deviate from the routine, wander a bit, and if you allow yourself to become a little confused and discombobulated, isn’t it possible you might meet new people, hear a unique perspective, and experience the mysterious? And could these new and different encounters transform and shape you?
Margaret J. Wheatley, a brilliant professor, thinker and writer believes individuals and organizations flourish when they experience a certain amount of chaos and confusion in their lives. She thinks our lives and our world will only improve when we accept the unexpected, listen to diverse voices, and confront confusion with a sense of awe, tolerance, and a willingness to learn.
She writes: “As we work together to restore hope to the future, we need to include a new and strange ally—our willingness to be disturbed. Our willingness to have our beliefs and ideas challenged by what others think. We can’t be creative if we refuse to be confused. Change always starts with confusion; cherished interpretations must dissolve to make way for the new. Of course it’s scary to give up what we know, but the abyss is where newness lives. Great ideas and inventions miraculously appear in the space of not knowing. If we can move through the fear and enter the abyss, we are rewarded greatly.”
As a young and newly minted high school English teacher in urban Los Angeles, I learned long ago that a willingness to be disturbed, an enthusiasm for risk-taking, requires a leap of faith: A leap of faith in others and a willingness to trust and believe in yourself.
One late Friday evening after correcting assignments in my classroom, after everyone had already gone home for the weekend, I found myself waiting for the bus outside my school’s locked main entrance on Central Avenue in the Watts section of South Central LA. I needed to get downtown to catch a transfer to my home in East LA. I stood there in the gathering darkness exhausted, lonely, hungry, and defeated after another week of trying to figure out how to craft exciting lessons, connect in a positive way to my students, discipline unruly sophomores, and understand and appreciate the lives of my mostly African-American students.
But I was really wondering what, exactly, I was doing 2,000 miles away from family and friends in an environment where I looked different from everyone else and was unsure if what I was doing even mattered. My students hated me, I was sure of that; I didn’t know what I was doing; and they desperately wanted to learn… but deserved someone who had a clue!
And what a loser I was on a Friday night correcting papers instead of hanging out with friends. On top of all that, here I was standing on a street corner in Watts—loud shouting, police sirens, and gunfire erupted in the neighborhood, and the stupid bus hadn’t arrived. All of a sudden, an old blue Buick with tinted windows came to a screeching halt at the curb… I tensed up as the rear window slowly lowered and a young man leaned out and exclaimed: “Mr. G! It’s Dwayne. What are you doing out here, man?? Are you lost?”
Momentarily frozen with fear I realized I was, indeed, lost.
Dwayne, a student I had argued with that very morning, threw open the car door and said, “Come on, Mr. G., get in. We’ll give you a ride downtown.” Wary, but relieved and trusting that somehow this would work out OK, I jumped into a car full of strangers, and we flew down Central Avenue on my way home. Dwayne and I got to know each other pretty well after that ride and eventually—he told me later—I even became a half way decent teacher.
I was unsure of myself, anxious about what I was doing, uncertain if I was doing it the right way or having any impact on students, and mostly, I was scared and uncomfortable and without a good road map. But looking back, I view those years teaching in LA as the best of my life—being confused, disturbed, and lost for a while set me on a journey of self-discovery and fulfillment. Oh, sure, a journey beset with problems, dead ends, and struggles—but one that helped me mature, grow stronger, and find a challenging career. Along the way, I made lifelong friends, including Dwayne.
Getting lost means taking chances and accepting a little chaos in your life and relationships. It requires openness to fresh ideas and a willingness to learn and to make yourself vulnerable and exposed. But the reward is great and life is more than fun and fulfilling. You see, getting lost in many ways is an act of hope—hope in oneself and in a world that desperately needs your commitment, courage, and leadership.
And so, members of the Class of 2012, with great respect, admiration, and love, I wish you the best.
Now, GO GET LOST, will you?!!