To our principal, administration, school board representatives and distinguished members of the faculty: It is an honor to speak to you today among friends such as distinguished alumni, parents, and family members. Most importantly, it is an honor to be here with you all, the class of 2015.
I know it is unorthodox for a teacher to speak at a commencement, since most of you thought you’d never see me again or have to hear me ask you to pay attention one more time! But I hope you will bear with me, because I am going to speak tonight on a subject that affects all of us in our lives: struggle. If nothing else, you may have a better understanding of struggle after sitting through my commencement address!
In my room, room J-106 (perhaps some of you have heard of it), there is a bookshelf. On the side of the bookshelf, almost hidden from sight, is a picture that I can see clearly from the angle of my desk but is not so apparent from yours. The picture is of the mythical Sisyphus. The picture has a caption that reads, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
If you don’t remember this story, the great writer Camus tells the story of a man, of a mortal man, who is condemned by the gods for daring to put Death in chains so that no more may die. Of course, this pissed off a lot of folks: gods, Death, etc. So Death escapes, but Sisyphus figures out a way to cheat Death and escapes from the underworld. The gods capture him and punish him in a particularly mean way: For all eternity, he has to roll a huge boulder up a mountain. Once there, it will roll down again, and he will have to push it up again1.
Sound familiar to anyone? AP Biology? Anyone?
OK, Camus was an absurdist and the point is that the ceaseless and pointless punishment Sisyphus has to do is tragic. Camus had a particularly interesting idea that all of us seek meaning in the universe, but the universe does not care and is indifferent to what we want or the burdens we bear. As an act of almost rebellion, Sisyphus accepts his fate as an extension of his middle finger. He is at peace with an uncaring world.
Camus wrote: “I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the Gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile or futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.2”
This is pretty heavy stuff for a graduation commencement, and no, the English lit teacher did not put me up to this. It could be worse ... I could be speaking about the Krebs Cycle!
I see that quote all the time, mostly as I lift my head up from grading some of your papers. These are long hours, writing feedback, constantly wondering how I can make your learning experience better, and asking myself how much you should struggle.
All struggles are not equal, and of course we have personal struggles on top of all of the academic struggles. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
I know you struggle, and I know it is not easy. Imagine your parents a long time ago watching you crawl, take first steps, speak, make friends, learn rules, play sports, date, get rejected, study, hope, wish, pine, want, and aspire. I myself have gone through this with my daughter. They say that being a parent is a constant act of letting go, watching your kids try things and struggle through them. It’s hard. It is hard to know how much to let your kids struggle. How much is good for them, and how much is enough.
As a teacher, I too face this. As of course you know, most teachers refer to their students as “their kids.” So having taught many of you as “my kids,” I too have watched you parentally as you took steps in biology and spoke candidly about your lives; overheard you in the hallway speaking just a bit too loud for it to be private; and seen you apply to college or face the reality of life after high school. In class, I have seen you struggle to learn how to study, work well with peers, complete assignments, and prepare for tests. All of you struggled, some silently and some acted out.
I am not as absurdist as Camus and cannot abide chalking up your struggle as a meaningless task, that you are simply struggling nobly against your fate. My job as your teacher is to guide you as much as I can through your struggle.
Many in education think that it is necessary for kids to struggle since they live in a ‘soft’ world that has been made easy for them. That they have grown up fortunate and privileged and that they will crumble when faced with adversity. They also say that what you need is a good old ass-kicking struggle and that, once through, you would find within yourself grit and determination. That this struggle will weed out the kids with these qualities - but they never really address those left behind.
My perspective as your teacher is that struggle is unavoidable and inevitable when you desire something you don’t have. I do not believe that people should struggle without a goal in mind. Struggling with no hope or idea of a potential outcome unfortunately does happen, as the oppressed and enslaved, the Dust Bowl survivors, and those who fought in wars can attest.
But ours is not that type of struggle. Ours is academic. It can be controlled and helped. You can be guided through the learning, and the struggle becomes less of a burden and more of a pathway to discovery.
Unlike Sisyphus, our struggle has meaning – it is about meaning. It is not endless, and the content within this struggle can be actually interesting.
In closing, how much struggle is too much, and how much is enough? I think the answer lies in what you want and how much you want it. I never struggled through my sixth donut. Remember as you move on in your life that most adversity is temporary, and that, if you can make your struggles have meaning or find meaning and interest in what you are doing, the struggle becomes exploration.
When you have moved on tonight, Mr. Kuhn will still be in his classroom preparing, grading, fretting about how to help kids learn, and sailing the endless sea of grading papers. If you find yourself sipping a latte one night, reminiscing of your time at Centennial and happen to think of old Mr. Kuhn, there in room J-106, think not of him as Sisyphus. Your lives have meaning, and the task of teaching you and helping you learn is not meaningless. No, think of him and all of your teachers as guides, helping you through your struggles so that your life has meaning.
My best wishes for the class of 2015! Congratulations.
1. The Myth of Sisyphus. (2014, December 1). Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 23:43, December 15, 2014, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Myth_of_Sisyphus&oldid=636210259↩
2. Camus, A. (1955). The myth of Sisyphus, and other essays. New York: Knopf.↩
Bob Kuhn has been an educator for 22 years and teaching science to kids at Centennial High School, Roswell, GA, for the past 17 years, mostly in AP and honors biology. In his spare time, he tries really hard to be the great person his daughter thinks he is. His work can be glimpsed at Banana Slug (always current class website) and The Optimist (semi-current blog).