Ghosts of Graduations Past

I will see ghosts tomorrow night.

Commencement is my favorite event of the school year. I love the pageantry—the college band playing Pomp and Circumstance, the choir, the regalia (royal blue stripes on my gown’s sleeves and a flaming red hood courtesy of Texas Tech).

My favorite part is the processional, where faculty line the aisle while graduates walk between us. I’ll look for my students, whose expressions will say it all: relief, pride, hope.

But tomorrow I expect to see more than the class of 2016. During my last commencement, I’m looking for some shadowy figures to show up. Call them the ghosts of graduations past.

Brandon will be there—Brandon who wrote papers about fish, who majored in Fisheries Management at Texas A&M and who went on to work for the New Mexico Department of Fish and Game.

Ditto for Adriel, who wrote papers about jets and now pilots one for the Air Force.

And Lexi and Aletha, who now, like their former prof, teach English.

And I’m sure my mind’s eye will see dozens of Finishers, those amazing students who made dreams come true for themselves and others—and who made my last years at AC my best years at AC.

So if you catch me smiling at empty spaces on Friday night, it’s not senility (really); it’s nostalgia.

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What Graduation Speakers Don’t Tell You

A reporter asked me what advice I wanted to leave my students, and I thought about a speech I gave to the 2010 graduates of Canyon High School.

Based on the biblical story of Joseph, I titled it “What Graduation Speakers Don’t Tell You.” You can read the whole thing here, or I’ll give you the quickie version below. As my students strive for their academic and life dreams, here’s what I want them to remember.

#1. Expect rejection—be persistent.
If you go on to a four-year university, you may not be accepted at the first to which you apply—or the second, or third. You probably won’t be selected by the first company where you interview for a job. If you start your own business, you’ll find much more initial failure than success. In the real world, you will receive many more “no’s” than “yes’s.” Many more.

So don’t give up. Keep on dreaming and keep on keeping on.

#2. Expect delays—be patient.
You can count on it. Everything (and I mean everything) will take longer than you think. So be patient—enjoy the in-between because most of life (even after college) consists of in-betweens. Life’s race goes not to the swift, but to the resilient. Keep believing in and working on your dreams even (especially) when it seems they will never materialize.

#3. Expect the unexpected—be flexible.
Did you know that ten of the top jobs in demand today didn’t even exist six years ago? If the trend holds, this will be the first generation ever to prepare for jobs that don’t yet have a name.

How does one prepare for the unexpected? I’ll tell you how Joseph did it. He learned from his experiences—we educators call it lifelong learning—and he became good at handling change. So—when the ruler of the land needed a man to handle the greatest unexpected event in his lifetime, guess whom he chose?

So here’s my advice for students. Dream big. But, as you do, remember to expect rejection, and delays, and be ready for the unexpected. And when you do, like Joseph, you’ll see those dreams come true.

I want to hear from you when that happens.

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Letting Go (2016)

I wrote on the subject before. It was nearly 30 years ago, shortly after our eldest child left home.

I said that while letting go was not easy, it was necessary. Children won’t stay young forever and treating them as such helps neither them nor us.

And I said that letting go leads to gain as well as loss. While I had “lost my little girl who lived at home and depended on her daddy, I gained a self-confident young lady who could make her way in the world.”

And, finally, I said that holding on to things lost will not bring them back, but will only blind us to new gifts yet unnoticed.

It wasn’t coincidence that I found my new career as a teacher shortly after my children left home.

And, while leaving AC is hard, it won’t be coincidence next month or next year when I discover the new calling God has for me.

***You can read my former newspaper column here.

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Excited about the Mystery

She (a student last week) asked if I was starting to feel sad.

“Not really,” I said, then wondered if I sounded too calloused.

But I’m not calloused, just experienced. I’ve been saying goodbye to students for over 20 years.

Besides, I plan to see many of them again. There are no rules against hanging out with former pupils.

The same goes for colleagues. I’m convinced I’ll see more of some of you post-retirement, when my schedule is more flexible, and when I’ll miss the daily hall-chats I take for granted now.

No, I’m not sad. I’m pensive: thankful for the past, optimistic about the future—but still clueless about what I’ll be doing in another month. And, strange as it may sound, I’m comfortable with—even a bit excited about—the mystery.

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Dream Job

It was this time of year, 17 years ago.

I sat in a small room on the second floor of the CUB at a table filled with members of Amarillo College’s English Department. Most of them have long since left or retired: Hodges, Huber, McGinnis, Knight, Zimmermann, Ford and Woodyard (only Dodson and Netherton remain).

And they asked questions. Not the ones I expected—about my dissertation at Texas Tech, about the major theories and theorists of rhetorical studies.

No, these educators wanted to know if I would be comfortable teaching mostly Comp I classes for freshmen. You see, most English majors want to instruct literature classes: American, British, Literature of the Western and Non-western worlds.

“Comfortable?” I said. “That would be my dream job.”

And it has been.

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She Bought My Dinner: 19 class days left

When I asked the waiter for my ticket, he pointed to an empty table and said they had paid my tab.

That’s a first. A student bought me dinner. Anonymously.

Wasn’t sure how to respond. Should I send her a thank you note? Write a comment at the bottom of her essay—next to the grade?

“You must get your criteria in the thesis statement. 65—Oh, and thanks for dinner!”

I felt sheepish, awkward, embarrassed.

But, also, noticed, appreciated, surprised.

Well, I put the note on her essay. “I’ve paid for a lot of student meals,” I wrote, “but never had one buy mine. You made my day.”

And it didn’t look too awkward placed alongside her 92.

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Fear of the Undone: 20 more class days

It’s what has made me anxious and panicked the last couple of weeks and what has prevented many routine pleasures, including writing this blog.

But no more.

Today, I realized that simply because time soon will run out for me at AC, and because my in-basket is overflowing with things that still need doing—I will, nonetheless, not finish every task; some things will remain undone.

Profound insight, huh? I have only 24 hours in a day.

So I’ve decided to face it. There will be things, even good things, things I consider important, things others consider important, that will remain undone—as they have every day for my last 60-something years.

So I guess I’ll just have to decide what needs doing most. And, tonight, I’ve chosen this blog. Hope you enjoy.

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First Teachers

Teaching teachers—it’s what I thought about doing 20 years ago while finishing Ph.D. studies.

If I teach 100 students to write, I reasoned, I will influence 100, but, if I teach 100 graduate students who will one day teach writing—you do the math—teachers of teachers influence thousands.

But I ended up sticking with first-semester students at a community college, partly because I like being their introduction to college-level learning, and partly because of the role such an educator can play. There’s a reason we remember first grade teachers best.

Because those who teach first teach most. Not only is all (or most) of the material new, but first teachers (in college as well as in public schools) get a chance to shape the moist clay of student attitudes before they harden into recalcitrant habits.

And first teachers do more than cover the subject matter. While Charlotte was teaching first graders, we used to compare notes. We both encouraged study skills, time management and understanding /cooperation between peers. We talked of plans, hard work and hope.

Parents are first teachers. Last night I watched my kids with their kids, and I couldn’t help but notice how much of their interaction was didactic. One doesn’t have to be a professional educator to teach. Parents do it all the time, as do employers, managers, coworkers, even friends.

And every one of my students fits in one of these categories. They are—or will be—teachers. Which means I still get to teach teachers.

Well, sort of.

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A New Dream

Not because of the things I’m doing now—but because of the things I’m not doing—

It’s why I’ve decided to retire. Yesterday, Charlotte and I called old friends we haven’t seen in 20 years. There were stories, familiar laughs and a few tears. 20 years!

Which is about as long as I’ve been teaching college English and hanging out with these amazing students. The things I’m doing now—they’ve been a dream come true, and I’m glad I gave them the best of my adult years.

But it’s time for what I’m not doing—reconnecting with good friends, one-on-one time with grandkids, more moments with a patient spouse who, once again, had to find things to do this week while I graded yet another stack of papers.

And writing—I sat down the other day and listed titles to a half-dozen books I want to pen. And I’m haunted by the fear I’ll never get to write them.

Yep, it’s time for the new dream.

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Helping Students Want to Write

How do you get students to want to write? Because I was a writer before I became a teacher, the question wasn’t hard.

I knew what inspired me, and it certainly wasn’t money or fame. Not that I’m opposed to them—would take either if you offered—it’s just that, so far, my writing hasn’t been good enough to merit that kind of reward.

What motivates me is readers. When I write something funny and get a smile, or something sad and produce tears, or come up with something insightful (too rarely) and get an “ah ha,” I’m hooked.

Maybe addicted is a better word. I have to do it again.

So that’s what I do for students. I become their reader. With little notes in the margins of their papers, I let them know how their stuff is affecting me:

“Scary. Your courage is inspiring.” Or, “this is beyond funny. You crack me up.” Or,” How sad! Can’t believe she just left you guys.”

Does it work?


We’ve finished with out-of-class journals (four entries per week) for the semester, and I’ve already had students ask if they can keep doing them.

Which leads to a final point. If one helps students want to write, he’d better want to read—because he’s going to do plenty of it.

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