Authored by Marty Kelly
(The following is adapted from a speech given to the Jackson Area Association of Independent Schools)
(Also, I’m really sorry if you are tired of the “It’s gonna be May” meme, but I’m even sorrier if you don’t understand it because that means you missed out on the glory that was the original Justin Timberlake and you probably didn’t have posters covering the wall of your bedroom of NSYNC and BSB and that’s sad for you. And for adult me confessing this.)
As many of you already know, before I started teaching here in 2009, I actually went to St. Andrew’s from kindergarten to graduation (Alpha Omega represent, whoop). Which means that all total I have spent something like 30 years of my life at this school. In my brief St. Andrew’s hiatus, I did go off to college, where I was a classicist who double majored in English and Classics with a Latin emphasis. Doesn’t that sound fancy? My heroes are Theseus and Perseus and Odysseus and Achilles and Antigone and Hector. Pretentious right?
But before them, my heroes came from the cinematic masterpieces that made up TBS “Movies for Guys who Like Movies” (we can discuss the prejudicial gender implications of that category later). My heroes were Sylvester Stallone and Jean Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris and Patrick Swayze and Steven Seagal. Were these movies misogynistic? Probably. Violent? Absolutely. Racially insensitive? 1000%. Problematic in terms of masculinity and heteronormativity? For sure. The best heroes for me to have? Doubtful. But here we are. And I’d be lying if I said they didn’t prepare me for the past two years of teaching more than any class I’ve ever taken in college or graduate school.
Let’s take Bloodsport for example. Do y’all remember this movie? Jean Claude Van Damme plays Frank Dux who goes AWOL to fight in Hong Kong’s Kumite. I mean, everyday teaching is already a bit like fighting in an illegal underground ring, right? And then, stay with me here, the pandemic hits and your best pal Ray Jackson gets destroyed in his match because he was being overly confident but you vow to hang in there and not get beat down and you’ve survived virtual teaching and hybrid teaching and mask wearing and proven yourself in your own fights and you think, “Okay I’m doing this,” and so you advance to the next round… only to have salt thrown in your eyes by your nemesis so now you have to fight the last match blind and exhausted, relying on parts of yourself you’ve never had to call up before. BUT your training and your instincts and your resilience and your support group kick in and you do it. You make it to May. You win. Much to even your own surprise. Because you remained calm and persevered even when you could have or should have quit or lost or cried or complained. Okay, so that last part may not be exactly accurate. I’ve complained a lot over the last two years. A lot of teachers have complained. A lot. Nevertheless, WE DID IT! Which I say in my head the same way Reese Witherspoon says it at the end of Legally Blonde when she graduates from law school (another classic hero from another classic movie).
One of the other things my heroes, like Elle Woods, taught me that I’ve clung to (notice I did not say “perfected”) is this: be kind. Several years ago, my dad, yet another hero and the person with whom I watched Walker, Texas Ranger and all these movies (well, not Legally Blonde) retired from the insurance business after 45 years and started substitute teaching in the Madison County School District. My dad, or Mr. Hitt, who wears his cowboy boots and is deaf in one ear, has become somewhat of a local celebrity and is especially famous for the only three rules he has in the classroom: Be nice, be nice, be nice. However, what most of his students do not know is that my father is a (gasp from the Honor Council advisor here) plagiarizer of Patrick Swayze from Roadhouse. Do y’all remember this scene? Please say yes. When teaching other bouncers how to bounce, Dalton, Swayze’s character, continually exhorts them to “be nice” even if they get called names… or their mothers get called names. (Okay so eventually Dalton says, “Be nice until it’s time to not be nice,” but we are going to focus on the first part.) In fact, Patrick Swayze’s entire list of advice to the bouncer crew is so perfectly pandemic: “All you have to do is follow three simple rules,” he says. “One, never underestimate your opponent. Expect the unexpected. Two, take it outside… And three, be nice.”
I know, I know. “Be nice” is overly simplistic for an overwhelmingly complicated situation that we have faced. But, well, it’s also kind of not. Because in a world where learning that we can control very little has brought us to our knees, we have also learned that we do get to control the way we respond to each other and to students and to colleagues and to administrators and to teachers and, yes, to parents. When we get to control little or nothing else, we get to control the way we treat each other. We can wake up every day and take care of what we can take care of, which may not be everything, but it’s something. Because that is what has gotten us through the last three school years and will continue to get us through life: accepting and extending grace and taking care of the things and people we can take care of. And, yes, I ended that sentence with a preposition. Remember, be nice! And also, WE DID IT!