Smart Kids’ Burden

The world is on their shoulders...

The world is on their shoulders…

(The following is a transcript of the speech that I gave at the National Honor Society induction at our school last spring. Mr. X read it at the time, and felt that I should publish it here. In light of current challenges to environmental policy in the US, I think he might be right.)

Hey kids! Here I am, with my speech!

First, I just want to tell you all that it’s quite an honor for you all to ask me to do this. A few weeks ago Chloe, and Matt, Nihdi,  and a few others all came into my room and stood around my desk and kind of stared at me… it was a little bit freaky. I didn’t quite know what they were up to, but then they asked me to come and do this talk tonight. And like I said, I am honored that you asked. So, the kids told me that speech should be not too long, and maybe inspirational. Hmmm. Then Mr. Berryhill told me that it could also be “aspirational”. Hmmmm.

So I thought about this for a few days. What could I tell you guys that was inspirational?

So as some of you know, I live up north of Middlebury, and I drive an hour each way in my electric car. I like to drive anyway, and I enjoy the time; I sometimes tell people that it’s a break between kids at home and kids at work. Anyway, it’s some good thinking time, I seem to work through a lot of mental problems on my drives. So I was thinking about what I could tell you guys that was “inspirational”.

And then I had this little epiphany, just driving along, because it really struck me that life itself was pretty inspirational.  We’re all pretty lucky, to live where we do, in the times that we do. AND, holy moly, for you guys, just starting out, it should be even more inspirational.

Everyone always says it at these things, but the world really is your oyster. And it could be that I didn’t really realize it growing up. There’s something that my parents never told me, something that I don’t think I ever heard. But in recent years, as I’ve watched on facebook as my former students go to college, and graduate, and get jobs, and go out into the world, and as I watch my own kids, who are you guys’ age, apply and get accepted to college—this thing has really hit me, and here it is—if you can study and make grades, then you can to anything.

What I mean by that— if when you apply yourself, and study, that you can understand the material, be it history or chem or calc, or whatever, and can get good grades. So here I am, and I assume that I’m pretty much speaking to a crowd that can study and make grades. Not everyone is fortunate in this way, some kids study really hard, and still struggle. I suspect, however, that you all aren’t in that group. So let me say that part again– if you can study and make grades, you will be able to do anything. There’s nothing to stop you. And I’m not sure anyone ever old me that. I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t. With good grades in high school, there’s nothing that will stop you from going to college. I didn’t really realize this part until I watched my oldest daughter just do it this year. You have good grades, you apply to a whole bunch of schools, and you get accepted to quite a few of them. If you can’t afford it, financial aid and loans are available. You might not be able to get into, say, Harvard, (but you might) but that doesn’t matter—you’ll be able to get into any of a thousand other good-quality colleges. And if you study and learn there, you’ll get a degree, and if you did well, you’ll be able to go back and get your masters, and if you do well in your masters, you’ll be able to get your PhD, and with those degrees you can get a job doing  ANYTHING. Anything you put your mind to. You could be an engineer working for SpaceX perfecting manned missions to Mars. You could master Arabic, or Chinese, and work in international business. You could become an archaeologist who studies early man, or a psychologist or physicist or doctor or lawyer, or anything.

So don’t set your sights too low. Aim high.

So that’s the first thing that I really, really want you to realize– that you can do anything.

Now, along the way, your life might be better if you did a few things a certain way. I find myself telling these things to the kids in my classes, and if you’ve had me in a class you’ve probably heard me say them. I call them “Mr. Bruhl’s life advice”. So here’s some free life advice—

Ok, first— Don’t do heroin. You laugh, but I’m only partly kidding. No one ever intends to become a heroin addict, or a pill addict, or an alcoholic. No one sets out with that as a goal. “Hey, I’d really like to be an alcoholic when I grow up”. But an awful lot of people end up there, it sneaks up on them. I know some really good people, smart people, who had everything going for them, education and jobs, and completely derailed their lives with substance abuse. People have an injury, and get some pain meds, and over time they take a few more, and a few more, and the next thing they know they’re using heroin because it’s cheaper. Or, people who drink alcohol, and slowly, over time, find themselves drinking more and more, until suddenly they’re derailing their lives. So, life-advice #1–don’t do heroin.

Life advice -#2— Spend less than you make, month, after month, after month… Invest the rest… Just as you can do anything you want in life with regard to school and jobs, you can also have a lot of money. It’s not really super hard. Now don’t get me wrong– there’s a lot more to life than money. But not having money is difficult. We get our financial attitudes from our parents, and I grew up in a lower-middle-class home, and I don’t think I ever heard this from my parents, either. But I was fortunate, because my best friend in high school, and we’re still best friends, came from a fairly wealthy family, and I learned this from his family. These were the financial values of his social class. If you spend less than you make, today, tomorrow, and all the time until you retire, you can live a good life AND end up very, very comfortable financially. Don’t put money above everything, but have some self-discipline. Avoid debt for consumption, save for the things you want, and invest that money that you don’t spend every month.  Keep at least two pots of savings—one for retirement and the long-term, another as an “emergency fund”. So, spend less than you make.

And, #3— If you want to be healthy and wealthy, learn to cook. We were just talking about wealth, but that old saying that health is wealth? That really is true. And if you go out to eat all the time, you’re probably not going to be getting healthy food, and you’re going to be paying a lot for it. So you’ll end up not healthy or wealthy.  If you eat at home, but can’t cook, and buy processed food, then the exact same thing happens—you’re probably not going to be getting healthy food, and you’re going to be paying a lot for it. So all you guys out there, and girls too—get someone in your life who knows how to cook to teach you. When you cook things from scratch, your food tends to be healthier, free of all those additives and extra sugars and preservatives and complex industrial ingredients like poly-sorbate BHA or whatever, AND it’s cheaper, when you buy raw materials. So if you want to be healthy and wealthy, learn to cook.

And I guess if I could just squeeze in one more, a #4—don’t get pregnant when you’re young and single. And I suppose I’m mostly talking to the girls, but I guess it hold true to some degree for the guys out there, in terms of getting someone pregnant. Having a kid too soon, or when you’re young and single, will put a dead stop, statistically, to everything we’ve just been talking about— your education, your financial life. It does happen, and people find a way to get by when it does, but it makes all these things I’m talking about really, really difficult.

So, there you have it, all my wisdom in ten minutes! Now, individually, all of these things are quite doable. They require some work, and some self-discipline, but nothing’s too impossible here. Make your grades, don’t do heroin, spend less than you make, learn to cook, and don’t get pregnant.

So what this means is, when you put all this together…. Drum roll… you guys are highly likely to end up successful, satisfied, wealthy, and healthy.

But there’s a catch. You know there would be, right? Here it is– in some ways it’s like this— you’re all set to have a great party, and you’re on a plane, but the plane is going somewhere where you don’t really want to go. Let me explain my metaphor here—

When I was born, there were 3.5 billion people on the planet. Today, that number has more than doubled, to 7.2 billion or something. That’s 7,200 million people. And I’m not that old. And every four days, there are a million more people on the planet. A million. And this has been happening for my entire life. Population is beginning to level off, but population has a momentum too. As today’s young people grow up and have children of their own, the world’s population is expected to continue to climb for decades to come.

All of us, living our lives, are putting a great deal of pressure on the very planet that we desperately depend on. I don’t think there’s some evil destroyer out there, ruining things behind the scenes. It’s just us, living our lives. But the weight of us living our lives is overwhelming the planet. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate—collectively, we’re causing what some scientists are referring to as the 6th great extinction. We’re steadily transforming the atmosphere, in a bad way, habitat is being destroyed worldwide, soil is being lost at unsustainable rates. We put hundreds of millions of tons of pollutants into the environment every year, and we’re changing the chemistry of the oceans. So we’re doing all this damage today, with 7 billion people, at the same time we’re expecting a few billion more. 2 billion more? That’s 2,000 million more people, who will need food and shelter and the things that make for a good life. On top of that, we need to help the billions that we already have, that don’t have adequate food and shelter and the things that make a good life.

So we’re lucky to live in this time, in this place– we have food and I-phones and Facebook and a stable society… it might be the best of times, in some ways. But, I think historians, way down the road, will look back on this time, right now. They will look at this generation, your generation, as a very, very critical time. These problems we have? They have to be fixed— and relatively soon. Not this year maybe, not next year, but within the next few decades, and preferably sooner than that.

It’s not all doom and gloom– I’m more optimistic than I used to be. With the technology that we have today, I do think that we can fix all of this. But it’s going to take some doing.

And here’s where you guys come in. Remember those kids who can’t study and make grades, who struggle to get by, to get enough education, to earn enough money, to be self-disciplined? Well, they probably aren’t going to save humanity. There are good people out there, and they work hard and try their best, but they struggle. So who’s going to fix it? Probably not all the capable kids like you guys that live in poor nations—they will also struggle to get by, but for different reasons. So guess who needs to fix it? You guessed it—I’m looking at you.

The odds are that it is young people like YOU, sitting in front of me, who will change the world. It is you who we are all depending on to change the world. So you can grow up, and work hard, and live that great life, full of travel and entertainment and success. You could be driving your Audi… But, I need you to do more than that. We all need all of you to do more than that. You guys are, quite literally, our future. So do more than just take care of yourself—figure out where we need to be going, and spend some of your skills and efforts on making that happen, on saving the planet, or helping to solve some of these other big problems we have.

Again, thanks for having me tonight. This was perhaps short, perhaps inspirational. But I mean all of this, I really do. I have chosen my paths, and have had a good life so far, and I have perhaps changed the world. But you guys have all of your power still—your youth, your vigor, your idealism.  So enjoy your learning, aim high, and make a difference out there. We’re counting on you.

Top image credit: US Dept. of Education, Flickr Creative Commons.