Note to readers: This is the speech I gave at a baccalaureate ceremony for graduating seniors that describes my transformation.
A Math Teacher's Gifts to His Students as
They Enter Adulthood
One of the most important values I have learned to embrace is gratitude. I know gratitude opens me to the realities that are set before me. And, now, who is before me? The students of the class of 2004, their families and friends, and I’m sure there are former students of mine. I believe the definition of a teacher is one who shares his knowledge with others. He shares his knowledge with people he believes in. And, this is exactly what I plan on doing. The title of my speech is “A Math Teacher’s Gifts to His Students as They Enter Adulthood”. I want to share with you the lessons I have learned about fear, hate, love and hope. I will specifically share with you how I was paralyzed by fear and controlled by hate, and how I learned to believe in love and regained hope in life through forgiveness. Lastly, I will explain how this process aided me in changing my beliefs about teaching. I believe that as you, the class of 2004, takes your next steps into adulthood, that you will be confronted with how to use the four character traits of fear, hate, love and hope. I also strongly believe your success as human beings is directly related to how well you deal with these traits, since these traits define us as profoundly human. And my deepest desire is that all of you are very successful.
When I was in elementary school, my father was stricken with stomach cancer. I heard these words from my mother, who was crying, and I immediately thought my father was going to die. I was instantly filled with fear. When I saw my father in the hospital after his surgery, I had fear. The recuperation process was extremely difficult because he had to relearn how to eat. Some nights I woke up and heard him choking on food, and he’d be rushed to the hospital. At these moments, I was also filled with fear. These were some of the constant reminders of my fear my father was going to die. There is one word that describes the fear within me at this time, and that word is paralyzing. I was actually paralyzed by fear. I was so immobilized with fear my father was going to die that I forgot to be thankful for every day he lived. And miraculously he is living today.
Fear not only paralyzed me, wiping out a sense of gratitude, but it also took root within me and my family. I have learned an important lesson about fear: when fear is not confronted, it turns into negativity, despair, anger and bitterness. I define negativity, despair, anger and bitterness as allies of fear. Eventually fear and its allies became so difficult and painful that they turned into hate. The evidence of this hate was my parents’ divorce, which was the result of an affair. This divorce was a hateful act because the people who were supposed to love me ended up deserting me. And the people I was to love, I resented.
And hate does not just go away. A person cannot will hate to leave his/her mind or body. Hate does not submit to volition. So, as the years passed, there was more anger, more animus, and more hate within me and my family. The visible signs of this anger, resentment, and hate were more marriages, more cheating, and more divorces. And I observed these same traits were being passed on to posterity, since I saw them within the lives of my nieces and nephews.
This hate that grew from the fear of my father dying was alive and well within me. Looking back on this time, deep down within me, I knew I wasn’t the type of man to make a great husband, and I knew I wasn’t the type of person to make a great friend. Honestly, I knew I wasn’t the type of person I wanted to be. However, I didn’t want to admit this. I allowed anger and bitterness to grow into hate, and I allowed hate to control me. The end result of this was I wasn’t living with hope. I knew I wasn’t living with hope because most of the time I only recognized the negative aspects of situations and people. I was unhappily stuck. What could help me turn the ways in which I was thinking in a new direction, and make different the ways in which I was treating people? Eventually I found the answer to my question, and the answer was a concept I had never heard before.
One day I was home listening to a radio program. I heard a man by the name of Jesse Peterson speak about forgiveness in a way I had never thought of before. His concept of forgiveness was very interesting and different, and it caught my attention. I have always struggled with forgiveness because I never understood why I should forgive someone if the person hadn’t asked for forgiveness. Mr. Peterson explained the difficulty he had with his mother, and he explained how he confronted his mother about this difficulty. He actually asked her to forgive him for hating her for the way she treated him. It seemed to me that Mr. Peterson’s concept of forgiveness had to do with taking responsibility for what one allowed to be created inside him or herself. I made a point to talk with him personally. Through our conversations I always learned something new, and sometimes I learned things about myself that I didn’t want to admit. I was finally beginning to realize the truth about myself and my family. I discovered and admitted that there was a lot wrong because there were huge discrepancies between words and behaviors. I heard I love you followed by someone leaving me so many times that I accepted this to be true; I accepted this was love. The truth is I knew my parents wanted to love me, but their behaviors weren’t matching their words. They were so full of fear and anger that there wasn’t room for love. More importantly, this was what I inherited, and this was who I was. What was within my parents was also within me. I was full of fear, anger, and hate; consequently, there was no room for love to come forth from me. This was why I was so unhappy. I no longer could hide from this truth and I wanted to change. I knew if I wanted to change my life I had to apply Mr. Peterson’s concept of forgiveness. And I decided to start with my father.
I was very nervous about speaking with my father about the past. At this point in time, I didn’t have enough courage to do this face to face, so I decided to e-mail him. I wrote to my father and I explained this e-mail was not about blaming him, but it was about me taking full and complete responsibility for my wrong actions. I did ask him to forgive me for my disrespect of him, and I also asked him for three things: to encourage me to make wiser choices in my life than he and my mother had; to encourage me to take full responsibility over my decisions; and to encourage me to be a good person. Through the act of forgiveness, I wanted to start a new relationship with him. I didn’t want our relationship to be filled with blame, anger, hate or manipulation. I wanted to elevate our relationship to a new level, which is founded on forgiveness and grows into an honest relationship between a father and his adult son. Even with my heart pounding rapidly and all my nervousness and anxiety about how he might react to this e-mail, I sent it.
My father finally phoned me after two weeks. When I answered my phone, and the voice said this is dad, my heart started to race. I did calm down after he thanked me very much for my e-mail. He added that it really meant a lot to him. He also said I had nothing to apologize for, but I disagreed with him. I told him I did need to apologize to him because I did disrespect him and I did use him. He then asked me if I wanted to talk about things that had happened with our family in the past. I said I didn’t want to because I had spent too much time focusing on the past and, now, I wanted to move forward. This was the single most profound discussion we had ever had together. After I hung up the phone, I felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. However, little did I know this was just the beginning of our new relationship. I didn’t realize that responsibility comes with forgiveness, the responsibility of continuing to confront the absolute truth of the root of my family’s destructive patterns.
After several months had passed from my phone conversation with my father, I realized I needed to speak with him again because not one of the three things I asked of him in my e-mail was happening. What I knew to be true was he was stuck in his own guilt, and my desire for him was to heal through speaking the painful truth. So, I arranged to meet with him. When we met, I started the conversation by telling him I hated him and I apologized for this. I had to be specific and use the word hate because it was the truth and it had led to destruction in my life, and I knew the same was true of him. Then I asked him the following question: dad, why did you hate us? He was shocked at this question, and it took him a long time to finally answer it. Eventually, he finally did answer the question. His answer is his to repeat, and not mine, therefore, it will remain confidential. I didn’t realize his truth and why he was motivated to behave the way he had in the past. I believe truth brings forth two things: clarity and freedom. Truth allows clarity of mind to know the root cause of destructive behaviors, and the freedom to take full responsibility for them. A few months later, my father actually apologized to my mother for how he mistreated her and his children. Now my father can start creating a new life for himself. This experience of reconciliation with my father gave me courage to ask forgiveness from two other people, my mother and my father’s mistress.
I realized what was inside of me was also inside of my mother. Bitterness had eaten away at her as it had me. Now, I was even more scared to face her than my father, and I think this was because she was the nurturer, and she never physically left her children. I had also seen her in so much pain growing up, and I didn’t want to cause her any more pain. However, the experience with my father taught me that if I didn’t ask her for forgiveness, then I wouldn’t heal, and I wouldn’t offer my mother important information to allow her to heal. If I said nothing, then nothing would change. If I spoke the truth, then there’s the possibility or hope that she might change.
I had two conversations with her. The first conversation, I remember being so nervous that my mouth was wide open with no words coming out. At this time, I remembered my great experience with my father, and I also remembered Jesse Peterson saying to me that my mother has probably never known true love from a man, and, therefore, I needed to tell her the truth. Those thoughts propelled me to finally say something. The very first words out of my mouth were to apologize for a particular time in our relationship that was difficult. I told her I didn’t handle this very well, and I apologized for this. I was actually then surprised by the words that came out of my mouth because I hadn’t planned on saying them. I said I was disturbed and uncomfortable with the fact that the two people who created me couldn’t even have a civil conversation with each other. I then said when two parents hate each other, they then hate their children because this hate is spread within the home. This parental hate literally destroyed my identity. I asked her one final question: if there is so much bitterness inside of you, how can love flow through you? I’m happy I asked her this question because it’s question I continually ask of myself.
After this conversation, I sensed this was just one step toward healing me and my relationship with my mother, and I knew I needed to be more specific in my apology. I had a second conversation with my mother, and I started this conversation on my perception of her marriage to my father. I said I think my father didn’t know how to create an environment of love and security for her, and she didn’t know how to show respect to my father. I continued to say I finally figured out what my issue was with her. I told her I resented her for not respecting my father. And as I watched tears well up in her eyes, I said I know now resentment does me no good. Forgive me for resenting you for disrespecting my father. I also told her all my life I’ve known her to be a person who wants to love her children, and I don’t believe she can with so much bitterness within her. I ended the conversation by saying to her I hope she chooses to forgive.
That same day, as I was leaving, I noticed a change within me. As I was leaving my mother said, I love you, as she always has. In the past, I either never said these three words, because I thought they made me weak, or I said them solely out of obligation. But this time, out of a quiet confidence, I said I love you too because I believe I finally had loved her. I took responsibility for what I created inside of myself, and I offered her information that would help her heal. There were honesty and truthfulness on my part. I hope our relationship elevates to a new place where an adult son and his mother can relate to each other. I was glad I had these two conversations with my mother. There was yet one more person I knew I had to ask forgiveness so I could heal, and this person was my father’s mistress.
I am ashamed to say this, but I hated this woman for more than twenty years with every ounce of my emotions. I hated her so because she called our house and told my mother what to do, and she also told me what to do. There were times when she called where she was rude, disrespectful, and sometimes extremely vulgar. She said things about my father that no child wants to hear and shouldn’t hear. So, I hated her for her intrusion into my life and my family’s life. This type of hate did me no good at all, and I wanted to rid myself of it. I did try to locate her, but to no avail. I decided to do two things. First, I asked God to forgive me for hating her for so many years; I knew I wasn’t created to live like this. Second, I scripted in my mind what I wanted to say to her. I asked her to forgive me for hating her for so many years. This was very selfish and didn’t lead to anything good. I then thanked her for entering my life because I learned two very valuable lessons from her.
The first lesson I learned from her was when somebody drinks the best of who they are doesn’t come forth from them. She was an alcoholic, and this was the only way she had the courage to call our house and say the things she did. The second lesson I learned from her was she was a person who took all of her hate and infused it on a family that was already hurting. She added more salt to our wounds. I don’t want to be this type of person. I thank her for this example of how not to treat people. I continued to say take what I have just told you, feel guilty about this, but allow the guilt to propel you forward to truly face yourself and heal. And then help your family heal from the hurt you caused them; she was also married and had four children of her own at the time of her affair with my father. I ended the conversation by saying to her that my hope for her is that she faces the truth about herself and heals so goodness instead of hate will come forth from her. I also hope her family healed from their pain and that goodness will also come forth from them. This is what I want to say to her. I hope some day I get the chance to speak with her this candidly. After this mental exercise, I consciously decided to let go of my hate for her. I am free of the hate that controlled me. I can now learn from the valuable lessons forgiveness taught me.
I believe hate is very powerful, but I believe forgiveness is more powerful than hate. Forgiveness taught me to live with courage, compassion, and hope. Forgiveness showed me how to rebuild a broken relationship, and forgiveness gave me the freedom to believe differently. Forgiveness taught me to be courageous by asking my father the right question, whose answer led him to his truth. With hate inside of me, I never had the courage to ask him why he hated his family because I was too afraid he would get angry. Hate breeds timidity, but forgiveness breeds courage. Forgiveness also gives birth to a true sense of compassion. As I seethed with hate toward my father and his mistress, I never cared if either one of them healed. I was so angry with both of them, and I wanted them to feel pain. This hate is narcissistic because its only goal is to hate. Forgiveness taught me how to be truly compassionate because it brought forth the desire within me for two people who hurt me to heal. If a person wants someone who has hurt them to heal and, then, tells the person the truth, then true compassion exists.
Forgiveness also taught me about hope. I use to place my hope in other people changing, and I wanted them to change my way. This is exactly why I lived without hope. I now believe hope comes from internal change when people take responsibility for what has been created inside of them. And hope can then flow from one person to another when the experience of forgiveness is shared. This is exactly what I observed when my father apologized to my mother for mistreating her and his children. This was something I never thought would happen. Hope also exists by the rebuilding of broken relationships. This past Christmas, my father sent me a Christmas card, and inside it he wrote I was a blessing to him. This was an amazing gift for me because, now, I finally felt like I was my father’s son. This thoughtful gift deserved a kind gesture. I called him up and asked he if he wanted to get together. We did, and we had a great time. There was no arguing or pointing fingers or blame or rage. There was finally peace between the two of us. Forgiveness taught me how to rebuild a broken relationship: forgiveness is the foundation and the relationship can grow and mature through kind gestures.
Forgiveness also taught me how I was put together as a human being. With all my problems, I always thought I could think my way out of my struggles. Well, this wasn’t true. Then I went into therapy, and I thought I could feel my way out of my problems. This wasn’t true either. I learned my perceptions, my thoughts, and my feelings were all intimately connected to what was inside of me, and all of these were anchored to my beliefs. The creation of my beliefs came from fear, anger, resentment, and hate. And hate not only held these beliefs tightly, but also attracted negative ones. Forgiveness gave me the freedom to believe differently, especially about love. I now believe love is the act of being committed to supporting others to heal by telling them the truth so that goodness will come forth from them. What I know to be true is human beings are the happiest and most fulfilled when goodness comes from them. This is my new belief in love. I believe this definition of love gives me strength, wisdom and courage because I don’t define love as taking from someone else. Hate takes from others. Hate tries to manipulate and control. Hate tries to make others feel as bad as you feel. Due to forgiveness, I am now a man who beliefs in love.
Forgiveness also helped me change my beliefs about teaching. Sixteen years ago, I started my teaching profession in south central Los Angeles. My teaching strategy was to start on page one in the book and teach every page in the book until the end. I also made the mistake of categorizing students into two groups of students: those with math skills and those without math skills. I now realize these were two very shallow strategies. As my personal life changed, I started to incorporate new strategies into my professional life. One change is the possession and expression of gratitude. I learned gratitude is a critical belief to possess because it opened up the possibility of seeing things differently, and helped me see my students in a different way. Gratitude opened me up to seeing their talent, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their potential. If I don’t see potential, gratitude allows me to ask the question: where is it? And, what can I do to help them see their potential? I have made the mistake of not expressing my gratitude to my students, but I can start changing right now. This is a very appropriate place for me to express gratitude. So, to all my past and present students, I want to thank you very much for being my students. I want to thank you for your personalities, your talents, your senses of humor.
I have learned two very valuable lessons from listening to others that helped change my thinking about teaching. Last year, I gave a similar speech at the baccalaureate ceremony. I was speaking with a student after the ceremony, and he replied the speech gave him a sense that everyone at the ceremony was worthy of hearing my speech. Worthiness. This was a profound comment, and the word worthiness resonated with me. I’m deeply grateful for this comment because it challenged me to think in a different way. So, how do I create a classroom environment of worthiness? I believe I have to show my students, day in and day out that they are worthy of my knowledge. I have to be patient with their questions, and I have to be aware if they are understanding the material. I must present myself as for them and not against them by choosing words that are constructive and not destructive. If I choose to use destructive words, it’s my responsibility to apologize and restore trust in the relationship. I cannot allow my own personal bitterness to enter my classroom. I always want my words and actions to instill hope, confidence, and a sense of worthiness within my students.
Another profound comment I received last year was from a student’s parent. I had the honor and privilege of having this particular student for four years in a row. At her graduation last year, her father pointed to his daughter and said to me that she is my creation. I was speechless. No one had ever paid me such a great compliment. I literally didn’t know what to say. In my mind, I was thinking that her father and mother created her, and I was just the teacher. However, this comment stuck with me. This is a great compliment that carries a lot of responsibility. If I take this compliment seriously, then I need to shift my way of thinking. What I realized is, for so many years, I gave my students information. What I didn’t do is challenge them to take this information and make it their own. I use to think I had to know every strategy to solve problems. I now realize I have to let go of this control, and create a classroom environment where my students can learn to discipline their minds to think in different ways. As I allow students to do this, I hope they can come up with better ways to solve problems. I now need to shift my thinking, and create a classroom environment where my students will receive the information I give them, and do better with it than I have. Then I am actually creating an environment where students can think critically and develop their own strategies on how to solve problems. I need to foster this atmosphere in my class.
The most profound idea that I have learned about being a teacher is that the student/teacher relationship is a very special relationship. It is like no other relationship. I now believe the relationship a teacher establishes with students is more important than the material taught. Please don’t misunderstand me. As a teacher, I am responsible for teaching the standards. However, the relationship between a teacher and student is what gives meaning to the standards. Two important components of any relationship are longevity and consistency. It’s important to know people over time so you can watch them grow and mature. I now believe that my relationship with my students doesn’t have to end in June. For those students who want to or need to, I commit to staying in touch. And I commit to staying in touch forever. Everything I have started with you I commit to continuing with you, which means I commit to listening to you, to encouraging you, to telling you what I know to be true about you. I commit to giving you my best advice, and to tell you the truth. Anything less than this would be disrespectful of the relationship. And I want you to know you are worthy of my time.
Class of 2004, I have so much hope for you. I hope you become loving and decent men and women. I hope goodness comes forth from you, because if this happens, I know you will be very happy and fulfilled. May you become men and women of courage. And may you become men and women who are truly compassionate, and people who believe in hope. I want to encourage you all to do one thing. I believe this is what one generation should say to the next: do better than I have. This is the main reason I wanted to give this speech. I wanted to encourage you to do better than I have. I went into detail how a typical family was destroyed by fear and hate. Do better. I also went into detail about my mistakes so that you would do better than I have. Forgive sooner in your lives than I have. Now, you are moving into adulthood where you have to make important decisions. I want to encourage you to rid yourselves of any anger, bitterness or hatred before you make important decisions. I now give you my lessons and ideas on fear, hate, love, and hope. These are now yours, so take them, use them wisely, and make them your own.
And I want you to remember that when life gets hard, and you’re struggling with making important decisions or people that you have trusted have let you down, remember that there’s this math teacher in room 296 with a pencil behind his ear, who sneezes loud, who tries very hard to speak your slang but doesn’t quite do it correctly, remember that this teacher loves you. Remember his belief in love is one of commitment to listening and telling the truth so goodness will come forth from you. Remember, he believes you are so very worthy of his time. So please, remember this is how I choose to love you, and this is how I choose to continue to be your teacher.
Click here to go to the Miracles of My Father speech