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Pearls of Wisdom Chapter 3: And Then There Were the Students

The following excerpt is taken from Barbara Bush’s Pearls of Wisdom, available March 3, 2020.


Barbara Bush’s relationship with America’s students was well documented throughout her public life. Whether she was reading to kindergartners, Skyping with a class of third graders, judging a 4-H cattle contest, tutoring a neighborhood child, or giving a commencement address— she loved them.

And they loved her.

And the older she got, the freer she became with the advice. After all, as she said in numerous speeches to students over the years:

Now, I can’t give you any advice on how to be a good teacher, or a writer, or a scientist, or an actor or dancer— I especially can’t give you advice on dancing—but at this point in my life, I can share with you some ideas on how to survive the inevitable ups and downs. After all, in eighty years of living, I have survived six children, seventeen grandchildren, six wars, a book by Kitty Kelley, two presidents, two governors, big Election Day wins and big Election Day losses, and sixty-one years of marriage to a husband who keeps jumping out of perfectly good airplanes. So it’s just possible that along the way I’ve learned a thing or two.

So let’s start with a story from a grade school—her Skyping friendship with the third grade of Brewer Community School in Bangor, Maine. It came about after she received a note from the teacher, Cherrie MacInnes, and one thing led to another, and suddenly she was video pals with Cherrie’s class. In September 2012, she surprised Cherrie by visiting the school. “I will hold those memories in my heart for the rest of my life,” Cherrie wrote in a column for the Bangor Daily News after Mrs. Bush’s death.

Every Skype visit ended with a “little advice to live by,” Cherrie wrote. She shared in her column some of the highlights:

Do something every single day to make the world better.

Work hard, read, be kind to others, and love your family.

Faith, family, and friends are the most important things in life. Be a good son or daughter, value and nourish your friends. Be a good friend, and know that God loves you, and I do, too.

If you work hard at everything you do, one of you may become the president, boy or girl.

My dream is for peace on earth, and that means no bullying. You can’t have peace if you are bullying.

My dream is for every boy and girl in America to learn to read.

My dream is for families to eat together and read together, and for you to love your neighbors.

Please tell your parents not to smoke. Smoking causes cancer. It’s bad for your heart and lungs. It’s also bad for the people around you. And besides that, it makes you smell very bad.

Graduating to high school—Mrs. Bush loved speaking to high schoolers, especially since the invitations typically came from schools that had played a role in her own life.

She was thrilled in 2000 when her alma mater, Ashley Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, invited her to address a school assembly.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you too much advice. I remember an essay a young boy wrote about Socrates, a very smart man who lived in ancient Greece. He said: “Socrates was a man who went around giving advice. They poisoned him.” But of course that is not going to stop me.

Don’t waste this time at Ashley Hall. Study hard. There’s no such thing as knowing too much. After all, do you want to grow up and be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Of course you do!

Play hard, too. Life, after all, was meant to be fun. That doesn’t mean break the rules and run wild. It just means have fun.

Be kind to everyone. There’s no such thing as having too many friends, and the ones you make here will last you a lifetime.

Above all, live life with enthusiasm and gusto. There is a wonderful author named Robert Fulghum who during the years has spoken to many classrooms, from kindergarten to college age. He once made this observation:

“Ask a kindergarten class, ‘How many of you can draw?’ and all hands shoot up. Yes, of course we can draw—all of us. What can you draw? Anything! How about a dog eating a fire truck in a jungle? Sure! How big do you want it?

“How many of you can sing? All hands. Of course we sing! What can you sing? Anything! What if you don’t know the words? No problem, we make them up. Let’s sing! Now? Why not!

“Do you like to act in plays? Yes! Do you play musical instruments? Yes! Do you write poetry? Yes! Can you read and write and count? Yes! We’re learning that stuff now.

“Their answer is Yes! over and over again. The children are confident in spirit, infinite in resources, and eager to learn. Everything is still possible.

“Try those same questions on a college audience. A small percentage of the students will raise their hands when asked if they draw or dance or sing or paint or act or play an instrument. Not infrequently, those who do raise their hands will want to qualify their response with limitations: ‘I only play piano, I only draw horses, only dance to rock and roll, only sing in the shower.’

“When asked why the limitations, college students answer that they do not have talent, are not majoring in the subject, or have not done any of these things since about third grade. You can imagine the response to the same questions asked of an older audience. The answer: No, none of the above.

“What went wrong between kindergarten and college?

“What happened to YES! Of course I can!”

And that’s exactly what I hope your motto will be, for your whole life, “Yes, of course I can!”