Note: This was a letter that I wrote to my class in 2015 and read to them at their Moving Up Ceremony on their last day of Fifth Grade. I’m posting it today because I just read a Blog post by Kate Roberts about the importance of healthy skepticism. Her topic and mine are not identical, but they have some overlap, and they both focus on this most powerful three-letter word. I apologize for the inside references in my letter. At the time I wrote it, it wasn’t really intended for a broader audience.
I’d like to talk to you about something controversial. I hope you’ll keep an open mind. I hope you won’t be offended. I hope your parents won’t be offended, too. It’s all based on a word that’s hard to say. In fact, some people actually treat it like a bad word. Still, I’d like to make a claim that while some might misuse this word, it may also become one of the most important words you’ll use in your life. Sometimes it may make people angry. Sometimes it may make people sad. On occasion it may confuse people who have trouble with its ambiguous meaning. Still, I think, if used wisely it will serve you well in life, so I’m going to talk about it now, even if it makes people uncomfortable. I think you’re ready. The word, of course, is…but.
See what I mean? Some people are laughing. A few people are shocked. Several are uncomfortable. And one or two are confused, probably about how I spelled the word. You see, that’s why I’ve been telling you that spelling counts. But here’s the thing, I actually meant what I said in the first paragraph. I’m not focusing on buts just to get your attention. I believe it’s been a really important word for us this year, and not just because someone confused it with the word boat earlier this year and created a surprising new compound word. I think it’s a word that’s going to continue to matter in your future. I’m tempted to say that as you move forward, it’s your buts that will lead you, but again, that might confuse some people.
This year, we’ve done a fair amount of arguing. I know, that could sound like we’ve had a bad year, but I think we had a great year. I think learning to argue well is as important as learning to agree. One thing we agreed on this year is that this is a competitive group with a strong sense of justice. Combine those qualities, and you will have arguments. This year we’ve argued about whether to pay college athletes, whether to ban bottled water, whether to require uniforms in schools, whether to extend school years, and whether schools should sell chocolate milk. We’ve also argued about choosing tables in the cafeteria, reserving seats at the back of the bus, and whether someone’s silent ball catch was really a “snaggy apple.” In each case, smart people presented evidence on both sides. Sitting proudly in the middle was a “but.” It challenged us to look at something another way. One person’s idea had value, but we’d better listen to the other side. We needed to acknowledge another view. We weighed the evidence and decided where we stood. “But” helped us to see issues in a new way.
“Buts” have also changed the world. In social studies we learned that an argument gave birth to our country. Our founding fathers may have sailed here from England, may have fought on the British side in the French and Indian War, may have considered themselves loyal subjects of King George, but when he ignored their disagreements, the colonists wrote an argument for why we should become an independent nation. That declaration hinged on the word “but.” You could look it up.
But they didn’t stop there. Not only did our founders propose a separate nation, but they determined that it ought to be a nation where people made the laws, debated the issues, and elected the leaders. That could lead to a lot of disagreements. Ever since then, Americans have had the privilege of throwing their buts around. At some points those arguments took the form of civilized debate, while at another time the arguments led to a most uncivil war. Later the “buts” led to peaceful sit-ins. In many cases disagreements led to change. That’s the kind of “but” I’m celebrating today. It’s the kind we often encountered in the books we read this year. The kind that bravely stood up to commonly held beliefs.
Some courageously protested minor issues. A kid disagreed with a teacher. When the teacher said, “You can’t write a poem about a squished squirrel,” a kid poet said, “but I don’t think that’s true,” and helped us all see a father squirrel, missing and missed, whose “eyes glistened still.”
Other times the issues were major:
Someone said, “Without slaves to work the fields, the Southern farmer will never survive…” But brave people of many colors like Harriet and Abraham and Pink and Say, said they’ll have to, because slavery is not justice for all.
Someone said, “It is in the best interest of Negro and white to have a separate education and social order.” But voices from both sides of that invisible fence, like Clover and Annie and Joe and John Henry said that separation is not equality.
Someone said, “The success of the suffrage movement would injure women spiritually and intellectually…” But a strong woman named Charley, and millions who followed her, proved them wrong.
Someone said, “Schools will always have bullies…” But Patricia and Officer Batlin and you said we can do something about that.
In February we read a poem called “Valentine for Ernest Mann.” The poet challenged us to look at things with fresh eyes, like the earnest man who gave his wife two skunks for Valentine’s Day. While the rest of the world saw those skunks and thought only of their smell, the earnest man looked in their eyes and saw beauty. He reinvented them as Valentines. I think most great inventions in the world arose from someone who looked at something in a fresh way and didn’t accept the commonly held view. You can’t light up the world with electricity. You can’t transmit someone’s voice across the country in an instant. You can’t make a phone that works without wires. You can’t wipe out polio. You can’t. “But what if I did this?”
This spring, we read a book called So B. It, by Sarah Weeks. In that book, we learned that one of the characters, a developmentally disabled mom with no knowledge of her past has been tagged with the name So Be It. The wise character Bernadette said she’d like to get her hands on the person who gave her that name. She said it was a name without hope, a name that signaled the end. It was a way of saying, “That’s just the way it is.” But Bernadette couldn’t stand that way of thinking. Neither could Heidi; neither could you.
Here is my parting wish for you on this Moving Up day: I hope as you head out of this school you will take your buts with you. You will need them. Please don’t use them as an impediment to progress or as a strategy to get something for yourself. Rather, think of them as powerful words that can move us forward. You will need them, because every day you will hear things that you disagree with, and you may feel compelled to argue. Use your minds and your buts to help others see another side, another view. Many days you will see things that shouldn’t be, and you will hear others say, “So Be It,” or “It is what it is.” You know that’s not the final word. It’s anything but.