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by William H. Benson

May 14, 2009

     Anna Quindlen announced her retirement last week, and I was disappointed. For the past nine years, every other week, she has written the essay, “The Last Word,” on Newsweek’s inside back cover, alternating with George Will. Newsweek is redesigning itself, beginning this week, and now that Quindlen is in her mid-fifties, she feels ready for retirement, and will now allow another the opportunity to write.

     She recently received three binders containing clippings from younger reporters, and she was amazed. “They were so thoroughly reported, so well written. Whether local, national or international news, they were just what journalism ought to be.” Dripping with talent, these young writers were so well-trained. We should thank their teachers.

     It is mid-May and the graduation season is upon us, the time when the teachers say for a final time, “You are excused. Go, apply yourself, and find your place.” It is coincidental that at the same time that Anna Quindlen has decided upon retirement, a new crop of graduates will enter the workforce. Graduation and retirement—the beginning and the end for America’s workforce.

     Some graduates think that at post-graduation their life will fall into place, when they find that first job. It works that way for some, but not for others. These others struggle mightily to find a job, a position, or a career—one far better than what their parents or teachers expected of them or could ever have imagined for them.

     Often a graduate has to wait, sometimes for years, before he or she finds a place in the world—gathering experience, determination, and hard knocks—until an old timer retires or is relegated to the sidelines. Each generation pays its dues.

     For example, Harry Truman had done very little—a farmer, World War I veteran, men’s clothing store owner, and municipal court judge—until he was elected to the U. S. Senate in 1934 at the age of fifty. An older Senator advised him that the Senate was composed of two types, “the show horses and the work horses. Be a work horse.”

     Another example was the teacher Frank McCourt. Nearing the age of forty, his prospects were dim. He was in a marriage that would eventually dissolve. He had slept through his night college classes at New York University, after working all day, until earning his diploma. “A failed everything, I looked for my place in the world. I became an itinerant substitute teacher drifting from school to school.”

      Then, one day he met Roger Goodman, the head of the English department at Peter Stuyvesant High School on 15th Street in Manhattan, and Goodman asked Frank if he would cover the English classes for a teacher on sick leave. Soon, Frank was teaching there permanently, and he admitted in his book Teacher Man that he was “Coming Alive in Room 205.”

     This was, he wrote, “the top high school in the city, the Harvard of high schools, alma mater of various Nobel Prize winners, of James Cagney himself. Thirteen thousand candidates set every year for the Stuyvesant admissions test, and the school skimmed off the top seven hundred. Now I taught where I could never have been one of the seven hundred.” Leapfrogging over the other teachers, McCourt had landed at the top spot.

     Some never get that lucky break; some make their own breaks, and some are trapped—in a stifling marriage, in a rural setting without opportunities, in a religion that does not encourage advancement, or in a miserable job without any light at the end of the day—a terrible waste of human talent.

     Underlying this entrapment is the feeling that you cannot do any better. “Do not believe it,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.” Over time we learn the truth of Emerson’s words, “The years teach us things that the days never knew.”

     Teaching the next generation is difficult. There is a vast difference between writing an essay and teaching others to write an essay, between doing a science project and teaching another how to do a science project. The skills are poles apart, and some do not recognize that. George Bernard Shaw said, “He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches.” I think that on that issue Shaw was wrong: teaching is doing the harder work.


     Congratulations to all the graduates this season, and welcome to the workforce. Thank the teachers.