Goodbye to My College Students — Part I

When you retire as an adjunct lecturer, there are no parties, no golden watches, no bonuses, and hardly a goodbye. And, so, after seventeen years at City College of New York, I walked alone down beautiful Convent Avenue one more time after my final classes, holding back a few tears.

But I left with a feeling of pride after my most difficult semester. I was both sad and happy to leave.

Sad, because what I thought would be teaching a couple of classes until I finished graduate school turned out to be the most rewarding job of my life — and those rewards had nothing to do with the pay, believe me. After a lifetime of struggling to make something of myself on the New York stages, I’d found my greatest stage in the classroom. And in the process, I met young people from all over the world. I remain in touch with many, including a Russian who became my songwriting partner; a few who appeared in my music videos; a young man from Egypt who started his own non-profit while still in college and has done a Ted Talk that has been seen by over 100,000 viewers; and others from Iran, the Dominican Republic, Ukraine, Mexico, Ghana, Lebanon, and right here in the USA who still send me best wishes.

Happy, because the post-pandemic seminar was difficult, not only because of whatever lingering trauma it had wrought but because the online years had created bad habits in the students and they found it difficult to attend class and get the work done. And still, after I painstakingly pondered every grade for my 75 students, many emailed me asking why they got a B+ and not an A- or A. I am tired. It’s time for me to take a break.

But at the end of my final class, I had about ten minutes left and launched into an impromptu speech. As best as I can remember, here are a few things I said:

“Did my dreams come true in life? No, they did not. I aimed high: I did shows, I wrote books, I interviewed celebrities, and I recorded many songs. I never made money at any of those things, and never got a lot of recognition.

“When I walked into the classroom seventeen years ago, it wasn’t because I had any great desire to teach. I was terrified, in fact. And yet, by the end of the first week, I knew I had found my home. My best job. My favorite stage. And it was because of you. Look around. You will never find this kind of diversity again, not at the office, not at your religious gathering, not at your volunteer activities. Embrace it. Learn from it. Invest in each other; don’t waste your time here.

“What a privilege to meet in person and get to know each other on a face to face level. It is why I have always said, ‘I have learned more from my students than they could ever learn from me.’ Where else would I meet people from all corners of the world? And in over one hundred speech classes and over thirty writing classes, I have heard over 400 speeches and read countless papers. How else could I have learned so much? It’s because of you.

“In South Africa, there is a word called UBUNTU. Basically, it means ‘I am because we are.’ Or, the way I interpret it: ‘I am nobody without you.’ We can’t thrive in isolation; we need each other. That is why I do the dreaded group projects — so I can demonstrate that five heads working together to solve a problem are almost always better than one.

“I also hope that you’ve learned through my speech and writing classes that words matter. Words matter.”

Here, I paused as a lump rose in my throat. I couldn’t help but think of the horrific news from the weekend before.

“What you say and how you say it matters a great deal. And when leaders spew out words of hate and careless thoughts, you end up with situations like what happened in Buffalo over the weekend. Words matter.

“Your grades and your major are important. Many of you may be first-generation college graduates and you are making your families proud. But as you go through life, take an interest in other things outside of your work and field of study. Volunteer at an organization. Join a sports league. Learn about finances. Sing in a choir. You will meet lifelong friends who will be there for you when the going gets tough, in a way that most co-workers will not.

“As my final act here, I get to coach the valedictorian and salutatorian graduation speeches. The salutatorian is one of my former students. He came to the United States from Egypt at age sixteen and barely knew English. He worked hard in his final years of high school to get his language skills up to par so he could compete at the college level. He not only competed, but he also became one of the top two in his class. That’s what can be done if you put the work in.

“As I look at all of you today, I’m taking a mental picture. I don’t want to forget; this is a moment that will never be again. One moment.

“All we have are moments. Here today, gone tomorrow. Make them count.”

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Kevin Scott Hall

Kevin Scott Hall

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.