During my decades as a college teacher, I sat through a lot of commencement addresses. Most of them I have long since forgotten, but one I recall vividly.
It was in a bucolic setting in Western New England, on a beautiful June day, and our commencement speaker was the late Neil Simon, one of the best, and funniest, playwrights this country has produced in recent decades. And he was hilarious. He kept us all in stitches for a solid 15 minutes, but then he got serious.
“There is one thing I want to leave you with,” he told the members of the graduating class. “Whatever you decide to do in life, do it with passion.”
That was it. Don’t focus on money or fame or what somebody else thinks you should do. Find your passion, and when you do, follow that path with everything you’ve got.
I’ve been thinking about this as our Florida public school teachers at every level, from grade school to graduate school, have come under increasing political pressure from our governor and his enablers in the state legislature seeking to police what they teach and how they teach it.
Anyone who has been following the news over the past few months is aware of efforts to control what is said in our public school and our college and university classrooms.
No Critical Race Theory (the totally fake issue discovered by conservative firebrand Chris Ruffo, who was recently elevated by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the New College board of trustees).
No teaching of the new Advanced Placement African American history course in our high schools.
No “subversive” books allowed on library or classroom shelves.
No guarantee of academic freedom at any level, and the tools to enforce compliance.
No elevation of academically qualified leaders to college and university presidencies. Those positions are reserved for the governor’s political pals.
It’s a long list.
And it made me think of Neil Simon’s words, because at every stage of my own education, I encountered dedicated teachers who, by their example and by their concern for me as a young person, helped me find my passion.
I suspect just about everyone who is reading this can remember a teacher, perhaps more than one, who made a difference in his or her life, perhaps even a profound difference. I know I can.
I had never been north of the Potomac when I landed as a 17-year-old freshman on the campus of Williams College, a four-year liberal arts institution located in the northwest corner of Massachusetts. Born and raised in St. Petersburg, my parents took me and my older brother, John, up to Washington, D.C., to see the sights, and we regularly visited my mother’s family in Huntington, West Virginia, but that was it.
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And I pretty much knew where I would be going after Williams. Law school, most likely the University of Virginia Law School, assuming I could get in. Just about every male member of my family had followed such a path, and this is what I saw myself doing.
So, what happened?
Two teachers, members of the Williams College History Department, took this Southern boy under their wing. One taught Southern history and the other taught German and Russian history, and I was mesmerized by what happened in their classrooms. I went to their office hours to ask about things that had fascinated me in class, and when I did, they asked me about myself — where was I from, what had brought me all the way from Florida to Williams, what interested me, what was I thinking about as a major, did I have any idea about what I might want to do after college?
Their classes and their concern for me as a person were the beginning of that process Neil Simon would later give voice to. They had begun the process of helping me find my passion, and, in the end, that turned out not to be the law and law school but the study of the history of the American South.
Teachers, at all levels, are a gift to our young people and a gift to our society. I don’t know a single member of the teaching profession who has gone into it for the money. They love their subject, they love to teach it, and they love being around young people and are energized by their enthusiasm and their curiosity.
Please, Gov. DeSantis and members of the state legislature, let our teachers do what they do so well without the heavy hand of government despoiling their classrooms. They are following their passion, and they are helping our bright young people find theirs. What, in the end, could be more important to all of us than this?
Charles B. Dew is Ephraim Williams professor of American history, emeritus, at Williams College.