Poor Elijah and I observe an annual graduation ritual. It long ago became clear to us that his chances of being invited to deliver a commencement address at Harvard, the Air Force Academy or anywhere other than my house were understandably slim. That’s how we wound up convening on my porch.
It’s the natural order of things for teachers that each June their students leave and walk off into the rest of their lives, and it’s the natural order for Poor Elijah that he has things to say to his in the moments before they do. After that he comes to my porch, we settle into our wicker rockers, and he talks some more.
We’ve got iced coffee and a chair for you, too, if you’ve got a minute.
* * *
I knew I was a real English major when I read “Paradise Lost.” Everybody took two semesters of freshman composition, but only English majors enrolled in the sophomore survey of Chaucer, Spenser and Milton. Their names even sounded like authors that English majors should read.
Milton studied to be a poet, but he earned his living writing political essays and government policy for Oliver Cromwell during and after the English civil war. Along the way, Milton’s wife died, he was imprisoned and he became blind.
“Paradise Lost” is his book-length poetic masterpiece. It tells the story of Lucifer, Adam and Eve, humankind’s fall and banishment from Eden, and God’s promised redemption. It was a labor to read it, but a worthwhile labor. Even as a sophomore, I found it a wise man’s reflections on human nature and the malignant appeal of evil. “Better to reign in Hell,” concludes Satan, “than serve in Heaven.”
Milton wrote shorter poems as well, including a sonnet that’s come to be known as “On His Blindness.” He wrote that sonnet about losing his sight. He wrote “Paradise Lost” after losing his sight.
It would be reasonable for you to infer that my point here has something to do with overcoming obstacles and persevering through hardships, which Milton clearly did. His greatest achievement came after his greatest loss. That truth, however, isn’t the lesson I mean for you to take away.
Not that I haven’t preached that sermon on other occasions, and not that I don’t still believe it. Ad astra per aspera — to the stars through difficulties. Too often you’ve been led to expect the stars, your own star at that, but not the toil and tears it takes to get there.
We’ve glutted you on self-esteem and poison platitudes. We’ve taught you “How to Love Yourself,” as if self-love were a virtue. We’ve trained you to “refuse to criticize yourself,” to “accept yourself exactly as you are,” as if dumb complacency weren’t a vice.
We’ve hawked canned programs like mindsets theory, the pernicious “new science of success.” We’ve peddled its snake-oil promise, “You can be as smart as you want to be,” a heartbreaking lie to tell all those children whose effort to learn exceeds their ability to learn.
We’ve guaranteed “success for all students,” another vain promise that lies beyond our power. Day after day we’ve entitled you beyond your due and empowered you beyond your present ability and experience.
Despite the tide of official rhetoric about Common Core rigor and standards-based proficiency, schools are every day further distracted and diverted from their academic mission, in part to forestall any students appearing to fall short academically. Our sleight of hand in grading and curriculum has only left you less able and rendered your great expectations false expectations.
Ironically, as we expand school’s mission beyond and apart from academic learning, as we tout the benefits and necessity of social-emotional learning in our classrooms, we’re becoming less adept not only academically, but socially and emotionally as well.
In part, we can blame our 21st-century ineptness on our obsessive preoccupation with frivolous technology and social media. The normalization of narcissism has ravaged us, too.
All this troubles me as a teacher. My chief job, my proper chief job as I see it, is to help my students understand English and history the same way my doctor’s chief job is to safeguard my health. I look forward to the day when schools and teachers hopefully will be allowed to refocus on academics. Also, I recognize the impact educational success can have on students’ opportunities and the material quality of their adult lives, as well as the hardships commonly worked in the adult lives of students who don’t succeed academically.
That said, there is an excellence that lies within the reach of each of us, regardless of our abilities or mortal incapacities. In his sonnet, Milton laments the loss of his sight and what he regards as the consequent loss of his ability to serve God through his writing. He reminds himself and us, though, that God doesn’t need our work or our talents. He desires instead our faithful obedience. “They also serve,” a blind Milton concludes, “who only stand and wait.”
For Milton, this is all set in the context of his Christian faith, but I think his conclusion is just as sound wherever you set your soul’s compass. Our value doesn’t lie in our ambitions or our talents or our scholastic achievements, but in our willingness to do what’s right, both at life’s turning points and in its everyday moments.
Some moral questions are admittedly nuanced, but more often than not my moral quandaries are less about not knowing the right thing to do and more about failing to do it.
We aren’t all equally capable when it comes to reading or math. But each of us is capable of moral courage and moral improvement. Each of us can strive for moral excellence.
They also serve who only stand and wait.
I’m not myself a paragon of virtue, but I’ll try to stand and wait with you.
Peter Berger has taught English and history for 30 years.