Last-day-of-class advice from a teacher who wishes she’d heard it: Kirstin Milks’ farewell to her AP Biology seniors

At the end of the 2011-2012 school year at Bloomington [Indiana] High School South, biology teacher Kirstin Milks, PhD ’09, MA ’10, a recipient of the GSE’s 2017 Alumni Excellence in Education Award, left her customary parting words for her AP Biology class. Student Philippa Tanford was in that class and recorded those words as they appear here: 

“[These are some] things I wish someone had told me a little earlier in life. And as this is the conclusion of our structured time together, I thought now would be a good time to tell you.

“Number one: Find what you love. It might take a while; it may change, but find what you love. Does anybody remember how old I [told you I] was when I realized this is what I wanted to do with my life? Tweeenty-eight. Ancient as the seas. You should try to find what you love, but you should know that it might take a while. So your best bet is to set a course, and know that the course can change.

“Number two: Find. Work. Buddies. Go to college, go to your career, do your parenting, find somebody who’s also doing the same thing, especially if the work is hard. Studies show that this is the No. 1 most important thing that guarantees success in careers and in college. Find work buddies that aren’t going to be all cutthroat and grade-pissy with you, and work collaboratively (in the way that I know all of you do with such skill and grace at this point) to make yourself smarter, especially if the work is hard. I think a lot of people won’t do this when the work is hard and would rather struggle in silence. That’s stupid, and it does not lead to school success. 

“Last but not least, you should try to make yourself happy in life. That means that if your parents are telling you that you need to become an endocrinologist when you would like to become a dirty hippy, then maybe you might have to make some negotiation about that. But, really, you should try to find something to do in life that makes you happy. If you are really, deeply, soul-crushingly unhappy looking at your significant other, or thinking about an exam, then you need to do something to make it less soul-crushing. 

“At the same time, I would like to posit to you that you should work to make others happy. Making yourself happy is all very well and good, but if it were the only important thing, many people would just be sleeping in their parents’ basement playing video games all day. So the balance to that consists of thinking about ways in your life that you can make the world a better place, to make others happy, and there are lots of ways you can think about doing that. 

“It has been a total and complete joy, and I am so proud of you. 

“[There are various ways to contact me], and I adore you, and I’m so proud of you, and seniors, come check in with me, I'd appreciate that. ... 

“… Raise your hand if you’re going to Indiana University next year. Look around, please. If you guys don’t find each other when the going gets rough, I’m going to be ticked at you. 

“If you don’t find each other when the going gets rough, I’m going to be angry with you, so make sure that you do that.”

                                                                                                                                             -- Barbara Wilcox

Photo: Kirstin Milks, PhD '09, MA '10 (STEP) shares teaching insights at the June 2014 STEP Conference at Stanford.