Margaret Edson's masterpiece for teachers — Happy National Teachers Day
Is this the greatest speech about classroom teaching ever delivered? I think so. Margaret Edson delivered this commencement at Smith College in 2008. It's a great one for National Teachers' Day.
Margaret Edson is a Georgia based grade school teacher. What we in Australia call a primary school teacher. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her play, Wit, in 1999. which was subsequently adapted into an HBO television movie starring Emma Thompson and won an Emmy.
In the normal course, a writer propelled into the stratosphere of American letters might consider a follow up play, but Edson wasn’t ambitious for further literary or stage success. She was a prep grade teacher when she wrote Wit. And she remained a prep grade teacher as it conquered the world. When I spoke to her for the third episode of the Speakola podcast in 2020, she was still a grade school teacher, but now teaching sixth grade.
This is a beautiful episode. Margaret Edson is so funny and humble. And she has an incredible manner of speech, she chooses language that is funny, and the pace of her talking is so relaxed and measured, but also with a sense that she finds beautiful and interesting speech patterns. It’s one of the best interviews I’ve done.
It’s also one of the best commencements ever delivered. It’s not as famous as Steve Jobs at Stanford or Barbara Kingsolver at Duke, or in an Austalian context, Tim Minchin at the University of WA, but Edson’s is a work of commencement genius. Structure, delivery, emotion, love, and originality.
I discovered this speech on a site called The Eloquent Woman, and I think of it as one of the truly great speeches. Certainly, the most beautiful tribute to the classroom teacher ever delivered. And despite her colossal achievement with ‘Wit’, she never mentions her play. She just talks about teachers and students and the bond they share.
"This day is a day of love. It’s not a day of achievement, really. It’s a day of your family’s love for you, your love for each other and your teachers, and your teachers’ love for you."
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Margaret Edson: 'There’s not a bar graph for classroom teaching', Smith College - 2008
18 May 2008, Smith College, Massachusetts, USA
President Christ, my new friend;
Chair McPherson, taller far than a common board chair;
Trustees, you who care so much about this college, and who know how to party;
Faculty and Staff: how beautiful on the mountain are the feet of the messengers;
Class of 1983, my sisters: when the history of the college is written, time will tell that this class was the best looking;
Allison and Desirée, I met you in the processional and I just wanted to say hi;
Parents — Mom, Dad;
and Graduates, the Pride and Joy.
I remember on this day Smith women who have died and who continue to be part of my life: Ruth Mortimer, Class of 1953, curator of rare books, my teacher and my generous friend; U.S. Army Captain Roselle Hoffmaster, Class of 1998: her death diminishes me, and I pray her life will expand me; Nancy Boyd Gardner, Class of 1984, had the color of red hair that looked so good with dark green; Beth McBeath, Class of 1982, whom I knew in the Glee Club and at whose memorial her senior year we sang the old revival hymn “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”; Louise Zanar, Class of 1978, whom I did not know personally, but who could play the harmonica with her nose.
“Filled to the brim.”
“Drunk to the dregs.”
“Unscrew the locks from the doors.
Unscrew the doors themselves from their hinges.”
(My task is to burden you with platitudes, and I accept with relish.)
“Think of things in themselves.”
“Stop, drop, and roll.”
“Do Not Walk on the Grass if You are Going Anywhere.”
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