Dusting Off the Old Words: A Short Address to Students

October 30, 2019 Updated: October 30, 2019

Recently, I was visiting my daughter and her family in Elmhurst Township, Pennsylvania. They live in a rambling old house on the grounds of Saint Gregory the Great Academy, a Catholic boarding school, where my son-in-law teaches geometry and carpentry, and oversees the care of the buildings and grounds. 

The 60 young men enrolled in this school follow a rigorous schedule: academics, chapel, prayers, sports, and what the academy calls guilds, extracurricular activities where the students receive training in everything from wilderness survival to animal husbandry, from cooking classes to juggling. Singing is also taught and encouraged.

One evening, we watched a soccer game between St. Greg’s and a local high school, during which the Saint Gregory boys not on the soccer field stood together in the bleachers and sang Latin hymns, Gaelic songs, and chants throughout the entire game. It was an impressive feat.

Having taught various seminars to homeschooling students for 25 years, I remain an old warhorse of a teacher and am always looking for the opportunity to encourage our young people, so I asked my son-in-law if I might speak for 10 minutes to his class. He was kind enough to humor me. Below are the five main points I delivered to the class:

1. ‘You’ve Already Won the Lottery’

Recently, a friend, Franklin, and I were discussing money when, he said, “Yeah, people are always telling me, ‘Franklin, you need to play the lottery.’ I tell them, ‘I already won the lottery. I was born in the middle of the 20th century in the United States of America.’”

His comment about the lottery was new to me—Franklin and I only recently met—but I had for years explained to my students that they are living in a veritable paradise, compared to many other places on earth. Instead of sitting in a heated classroom, they could be standing up to their knees in a rice paddy or walking five miles to some school in Africa just to obtain a rudimentary education. I told them they have advantages others only dream of—clean drinking water, a variety of foods, clothes and shoes, hot showers, computers, and books—and that it was up to them to take advantage of their advantages and someday to pass on in some manner the gifts they were given.

The lesson here is gratitude. 

2. You Cannot Win If You Do Not Play 

That line came to me long ago from songwriter and musician Steve Forbert, and is another piece of advice I have frequently imparted to my students. For the Saint Gregory boys, I referenced the previous night’s soccer game, pointing out that all of them, both those playing on the field and those singing in the stands, had participated in the game and that this same passion for engagement will carry them far in life. 

To live fully, I told them, to take part in the grand adventure of life, means stepping onto the playing field, taking the hits, and assuming responsibility for your actions. Here I brought up the film “Rocky Balboa,” which some of the boys had seen, and Rocky’s speech to his son: “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” 

Accept responsibility for your actions, I told them. Take the hits and keep moving forward. 

3. Strive for Excellence

Despite an injunction by a Master Teacher to “Be ye perfect even as I am perfect,” most of us will fall far short of perfection. But we can push ourselves, I told the boys, and seek to be and do our best in whatever we undertake. The ancient Greeks called it arête, meaning both excellence—to fulfill one’s potential—and moral virtue. 

Here I emphasized immediacy. Start now, I told them. Start today. All of us, I said, and especially young people, often regard the present as a mere stepping stone to the future: Saint Gregory’s is but a prelude to college, and college an overture to law or medicine or some other pursuit. “There at last,” some of us think, “I will find happiness and fulfillment.” Wrong, I said. Your destiny and your happiness lie in this day, this very hour. Here I followed up with another movie line, this one from “Gladiator:” “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”

Start now to strive for excellence, I told those boys. Start now.

4. Memento Mori

Remember, I told the boys, someday you are going to die—a cold, hard fact that should inspire us to live life to the hilt. I mentioned some of the pictures of saints with which the boys were familiar, paintings in which a skull sits on a shelf or desk, an object kept by those venerable men and women to remind themselves that life is short. I then told them a story of an Eton headmaster, who when asked by a mother what in a word he was preparing the Eton boys for, replied, “In a word, madam. Death.” By that remark, I explained, he meant they were preparing young men to live as fully as possible, that we die well when we have lived well. 

I then asked the average age of the young men and found it was 15 to 16. After pointing out that most of them would probably live another 70 years, I then pointed to myself and said that with any luck, I would live another 15 years. For me, time has become a precious commodity.

Look at every day, even the most difficult ones, as a gift. 

5. Keep Alive a Sense of Wonder

We concluded my 10 minutes with an exercise I have employed in other moments of teaching. “Look at your classmates,” I said. They did so. “Now,” I said, “look out the windows behind you.” They turned in their desks and looked through the windows at a beautiful October morning: blue skies, red, yellow, and brown leaves, a touch of frost on green grass. 

“You’re looking at a wonderful mystery,” I said. “Your classmates, this day—and you’re a part of that mystery, swirling through space on a tiny planet, breathing air, dreaming dreams. So often we forget we’re living in this mystery, this miracle, but if we just stop every once in a while to take it in, we can keep our sense of wonder alive and well.”

I then thanked them for listening and left the room.

A final note to my readers: Some of you may find what I had to say to the boys that morning hackneyed, cheap, old hat, and trite. 

I would disagree.

Our young people need to hear the old words, those dusty, all-too-often neglected antiques like excellence, gratitude, truth, honor, courage, and virtue. 

They need those words. Desperately.

And it’s up to the rest of us to see that they get them.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.