In 1997, on what I imagine to have been a beautiful June day full of hope and wonder, writer Mary Schmich penned a column for the Chicago Tribune offering some whimsical advice to the college graduates of that year. The column was titled “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.” The following year, Baz Luhrman put that column to music in “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen),” a slightly melancholy and carefree song which has garnered millions of YouTube listens.
Here’s a snapshot of the song, to give you a feel of its playful, if sappy, tone:
Ladies and Gentlemen of the class of ’99: Wear Sunscreen.
If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.
Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they’ve faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked. You are not as fat as you imagine.
For Luhrman’s audience of graduates, an exciting world of possibilities lies ahead — an idealistic neverland where you should “keep your old love letters” and “throw away your old bank statements,” where you should “remember compliments you receive” and “forget the insults.”
Would that life were so sweet and platitudinous!
Fast-forward nearly 15 years after Luhrman’s song debuted to today — and enter a failing school in a rough and run-down Brooklyn neighborhood. There, you’ll find a 12th grade English teacher who has a very different kind of advice to offer to his students who are about to enter the real world: “Rule 1: Life is not fair. Get used to it!”
Thanks to a teacher friend of mine, who found herself substitute teaching in his classroom a few days ago, I have in my lap a sheet of paper with the word “RULES” in big block black letters emblazoned across the top. Below that are 13 rules, which are unconsciously hilarious in their bitter portrayal of life — the first of the 13 rules was mentioned above: Life is not fair. This stark 8 x 11 sheet of paper, with its three holes down its left side, my friend informs me, was posted prominently on the wall of the teacher’s classroom.
Like Luhrman’s song, this teacher’s rules — let’s call the teacher Mr. Martinez — seek to instill a certain kind of wisdom in the youth.
While Luhrman’s feel-good song is studded with motivational commands like “Enjoy your body,” “Sing,” “Dance,” “Stretch,” and “You are not as fat as you imagine,” Mr. Martinez has more to worry about than his students’ self-esteem. Many of his students won’t graduate from high school, nor will they make it to college, after all. When Luhrman tells his audience of future yuppies, “Do not read beauty magazines, they will only make you feel ugly,” Mr. Martinez thinks, “Rule 2: The world won’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel ‘so good’ about yourself.”
And while Luhrman idealistically suggests that you “Do one thing every day that scares you,” that could spell real trouble for Mr. Martinez’s students, whose brushes with gang violence and the police are a regular occurrence.