Valediction 2017


For the second time in my career, I was one of the names on the final ballot for faculty speaker at graduation. For the second time in my career, I was not elected. I’ve already done rather a lot of thinking about what I would say at graduation, though, and it seems a shame to let all that thought go to waste.

Since I’m not actually delivering a speech, this will be more a good-bye letter than an actual valediction. I trust you’ll forgive me. Here we go:

At the beginning of this school year, my wife and I bought a house. It was a huge investment, and taking out a 30-year loan at 39 years old is terrifying, but it’s a wonderful house and we’re thrilled to have it. The story behind buying this house is important. My wife and I got married when I was 34 years old. At that time, I already owned a small—very small—house. When she and the kids moved to College Station, the five of us lived in a two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom, 1100 square-foot house. That means my wife and I had a bedroom, and the three kids had a bedroom. One of the bathrooms in the house had a shower and bathtub in it, but the other was just a sink and a commode. I have literally lived in apartments that were bigger than my first house. We were really, really cramped. That was in March of 2012. We bought our new house in August of 2016. We lived in uncomfortably close quarters, rotating through the shower each day, and stacking kids (a boy and two girls, nonetheless) into three-person bunkbeds for four and a half years before we bought our new house. Honestly, some of our friends started to think we were a little crazy; however, we knew what we wanted in our new house, and we knew that we couldn’t afford to make that kind of investment without saving up some serious money first. When buying a house, the buyer makes a down payment and then borrows the rest of the balance from the bank. As a result, when the buyer makes a larger down payment, the monthly payments are proportionately smaller. Teachers can’t rush into huge mortgage payments, so we saved money. And we saved money. And we saved money. For four and a half years, we saved money. In August, we made a big down payment and bought a house we love with monthly payments that we can afford.

I’d understand if you were wondering right now why I’m telling you about my financial life. As I think back on this experience, though, I can see several ways that you might learn from it and some bits of advice that I can pass along.

First, learn to delay gratification. I know four and a half years is just about a quarter of your lifespan right now, but trust me when I tell you it’s not that long. I know there are things you want. Please realize the power of buying them responsibly. Rather than overextending yourself to buy something today, save money and buy it later. My wife and I set a goal—we weren’t going to buy a house until we saved $40,000. It took us four and a half years. As a result, we had time to consider exactly what we wanted in a house and find one that we both love (which was not easy, by the way). Saving money requires sacrifice, and you’re much less likely to spend money earned by sacrifice on something trendy or superficial or impulsive. This applies to many purchases besides houses. Even if it’s a fairly small purchase like a new laptop, pick something, save money, and buy it when you can lay the cash on the counter instead of buying it on credit. This is a habit that far too few people cultivate. I have friends who own big houses and new cars but can’t afford to take a weekend vacation because they have huge debts that eat up their paychecks each month. Do not start down that road. Learning to delay gratification is a strong first defense.

The story of buying my house also leads me to this bit of advice: learn to live with inconvenience and physical discomfort. Believe me when I tell you that waiting to be the fifth person to shower is not my favorite activity. Neither did I particularly enjoy the fact that the living room was also the kids’ playroom in my old house. I didn’t watch adult television for several years because the kids were always in the room. However, here I am, happy and unscathed after inconvenience and physical discomfort. We live in an age where we can, with rare exceptions, be comfortable and pain-free all the time, but I tend to believe that has made us weaker. For example, my friend Mr. Taylor took his students to A&M for a tour of some of their facilities a few weeks ago. At one point on the tour, they walked from Kyle Field to University Drive. He told me afterward that the students whined and complained the whole way about how hot it was, how thirsty they were, and how they were just dying. The walk from Kyle Field to University is about two blocks. Learn to live with inconvenience and physical discomfort, friends. Realize that thirst, hunger, aggravation, bug bites, heat, cold, and minor physical pain are not emergency situations. The ability to function despite these maladies is part of having strong character.

Although it might seem like a lifetime before this is useful to you, my third piece of advice is this: once you start your career, start saving money to buy a house. My first house, as I have told you, was not a great place for five people to live. When I bought it, though, it was the perfect size for me and my cat. I lived there quite comfortably for several years before I got married. The whole time I lived there, I was making mortgage payments and building up a magical thing called equity. Equity is the money that you have invested in your house that you can expect to recuperate when you sell it. Here’s how it works: when I sold my house, I made money two ways. First, property values had risen in the years that I owned the house, and the market price was considerably higher when I sold it than it had been when I bought it. Second, by making mortgage payments, I had paid off quite a large chunk of my loan. When I sold the house, I recuperated that money. I cannot stress how important this is. Money you invest into buying a house is money that you can get back. Money you spend on renting an apartment is money flushed down a toilet. My first house was small and fairly old and in a slightly sketchy neighborhood, but the equity I built up in that house and recuperated when I sold it was a huge contributing factor in my ability to buy my new house. Buying a house, even a small one, and keeping up with the payments is an investment that will make your eventual transition to your long-term home much easier. It may be the wisest financial decision you can make.

That’s enough about the house. Let me address a few other topics.

Please be aware of how silly trends and fads are. I’m not saying that you should be as fashion-blind and pop-culture-averse as I am, but find the division between what has substance and what is just noise. There’s an enormous amount of noise in our world. The latest make-up trends, the best sneakers, the 86-day Snapchat streak you have with your friend—none of these are inherently bad, but please realize how little they matter. I’m well aware of the fact that my wardrobe is a bit of a train wreck, for example; however, I’m also aware that it doesn’t affect my teaching, my relationship with my family, or anything else in my life that actually matters. You’ve almost certainly looked at me at some point in the past couple of years and wondered to yourself whether I actually own and know how to use a mirror. When you look back at my class in the future, though, that’s not what you will remember. You will remember substance. Personally, I choose to opt out of fads and trends altogether, but I’m not advising you to do the same—go ahead and do the mannequin challenge if you want, but remember that fads don’t actually mean anything. Do not invest any serious meaning or emotional capital in them. Following this advice may make you seem a bit lame to your contemporaries, but you’ll spend your energy on pursuits that matter. Living a life of substance is rewarding, fulfilling, and quite a bit less common than you’d think.

(The above paragraph also applies to music. For the love of God, please listen to good music. It’s as important as reading good books.)

You will find very few areas of your life where you can exert complete control. Although you want to be the best, there will always be someone in the room who is more athletic than you, more physically attractive than you, or even more naturally intelligent than you are. This is the way of the world. I’m certainly not here to tell you that you shouldn’t invest time or energy into athletic pursuits, your appearance, or your studies. Any and all of those are reasonable goals to pursue, if you so choose. What I want you to know, though, is this: somebody will always have the slight edge over you in these pursuits. Genetics dictates it. This is beyond your control. Strive to improve, but realize that you will always fall short of perfection. Also, take heart in this: there are some aspects of your life over which you can exhibit total control—parts of your character that don’t rely at all upon genetics or natural talent. Here are a few such character traits: honesty, punctuality, respect, and kindness. You can always, always be the kindest person in the room. You can, simply by deciding to do so, treat every person you meet with decency, dignity, and respect. Similarly, you can always be the most honest, punctual, and respectful person in the room if you decide for yourself that these are your priorities. In fact, cultivating personality traits like kindness—traits that are entirely under your control and don’t rely at all on innate talent—is not just an optimistic goal; it’s your duty as a human.

Finally, I’d like to thank you. As I leave my classroom to continue my career in the library, I am happy to have the class of 2017 to look back on as my last class of seniors. You are an incredible group. You’re smart and athletic and creative—but more importantly, you’re kind and loyal and decent. As a teacher, the number of waking hours I spend with students during the school year is roughly equal—and many weeks, much greater—than the number of hours I spend with my family. You genuinely have become a second layer of family. I was worried about you when you were down. I was overjoyed as you came and told me all the amazing places you’ve been accepted to college. I was proud when you wrote brilliant papers, and I was probably a bit too disappointed when you turned in work that wasn’t your best. I attended your games, concerts, and performances as often as I could. I read your newspaper, chaperoned your field trips, and tried to teach you about life outside of school.  I’m not quite as attached to you as I am to my own stepchildren, but it’s close. I’m not telling you this to create some sense of indebtedness or guilt in you; I’m telling you this because it’s easier than just coming out and saying what I really mean: I love you. There is nobody, outside of your family, who is more firmly on your side than I am. I haven’t told you that out loud, but that’s not because I have trouble expressing emotion; in fact, it’s because I’m absolutely certain that I’d end up crying in that conversation. I’m much better at showing love than talking about it, so if you need anything after high school, please find me and let me help. In past years, I have offered relationship advice, disc golf partnership, occasional help with college writing, conversation over coffee, and even a 3 a.m. sober ride home after some bad decision-making. I will be genuinely happy to do all of these things again (but you only get one sober ride, so choose carefully). The quasi-parental level of care that I have tried to offer you thus far and will continue to offer you in the future, if you like, doesn’t come without a cost, though. Like your actual parents, I have high hopes and expectations for you. I know that you are smart, creative, kind, and talented, and I fully expect you to make the most of those talents to live a life of goodness. My long-term goal as a teacher has always been to send students out into the world with the intent and ability to see beauty, to work for positive change, and to respect and love their fellow humans. Everything else is secondary.

So go out into the world after you graduate with optimism, hope, big plans, and the confidence that I’m still here at Consolidated proudly cheering your achievements and ready to help if you ever need it. Be well, friends.

(Also, if you’re so inclined, send me a friend request on facebook.)


3 Responses to “Valediction 2017”

  1. 1 Drew Howerton
    May 23, 2017 at 8:49 am

    I’m not one of your seniors, but hoo boy have I enjoyed having you as a teacher, and more than just a teacher, but a person in my day to day life.

  2. October 9, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    I never got the chance to experience any part of senior year with you; however I am SO incredibly thankful for everything you helped me with throughout my junior year. There were days I simply could not handle anything, faced awful circumstances and tried to hide it from the world, but somehow, for some reason, in your class I never felt the need to hide. I never felt scared to cry when life was rough, nor talk to you when a family-issue arose. I always felt safe. That is SO huge and I truly thank you for that. You rock, Lindner! I will be back in College Station in approximately 11 weeks, I’ll be sure to stop by with either some yams or bacon!

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