I appreciate first day of class speeches. It’s a genre of its own. I am beginning my tenth year as a high school teacher this Monday. Some of my classes will hear a version of this:

On Poems and Pull-Ups

I am a poet not a United States Marine. I believe that the body and mind are connected, that health has many domains, and that if you learn to do one hard thing this teaches you how to do other hard things. Poems and pull-ups can be difficult.

At the end of last school year I could do ZERO Pull-Ups. At the end of this school year I will do TWENTY. Why?  Two reasons:

  1. On July 5, after watching a documentary about the history of rock climbing and free solo climbing in Yosemite Valley, I thought to myself: I should do that. I was at the playground with my kids at the time, when another thought came to me: Can I do a pull-up? I’ll save you the suspense. Nope. I couldn’t. I was no longer okay with this fact about myself.
  1. Pull-ups are a good symbol to share with you.

I’ve been visiting my local pull-up bar nearly every day since July 5. Today, I can do more than ZERO. Each time I do one more, it feels good. And I want to do more. In June I will do 20, adding about 2 pull-ups a month. Will this work? I don’t know. I almost did 5 yesterday.

Last year we talked about the Japanese word Kaizen, and we discussed the question: A year from now what will you wish you had done today? Kaizen means “small continuous improvement.” (See: kaizen not karoshi for more on that.) A year from now? I want to be able to do 20 pull-ups, and I will have wished I tried to do some today. Time passes either way.


Fair enough. Poems and pull-ups aren’t the point (though good cases can be made for the benefits of both). The point is difficulty. We are starting a new school year.  Some things seem impossible right now. For me, twenty pull-ups. For me, ________. For me, __________. For me, ____________. I have a long list. And so do you.

It doesn’t matter where you are starting, it matters that you do. Why do the pull-ups matter? (Symbol: stands for itself and something beyond itself)  I believe they matter because they are difficult.

Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Above my desk is this quote from the poet John Berryman:

You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise, you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere because that’s always easiest.

I imagine a military drill sergeant may also have a quirky quip about doing more than you think you can do while you are on a pull-up bar, or wherever else.

We are in this room to GROW. We are here to improve. Growth can happen in two directions, but if it happens negatively it is called decay, or dying. I believe you are in this class, in this school, and ultimately (as part of the human condition) on this planet to grow.

Pull-ups work as a great symbol for something that is difficult. And the thing about difficult things is this:

If you learn to do one hard thing, this teaches you how to do other hard things. (This is a paraphrase (or worse!) of a a main point in Angela Duckworth’s Grit. Go read that book.)


Thanks for asking. Keep doing that. Three things.

1. This class is about one thing: GROWTH.

Ultimately you will choose what you are willing to grow in. Growth happens in two directions. If you’re not growing, you’re dying.

2. There are 2 things you can control: ATTITUDE AND EFFORT

The cool thing about this is that when you have a good attitude and display effort, you end up controlling others.

3. I am asking only 2 things of you this year.

That’s it. Do these, and you’re a badass. Do these, and this will be a great year. Do these, and you are setting yourself on a trajectory for success. Do these. Please.

  1. SHOW UP.


I think this is going to be a great year for us. I’m excited you’re here. My name is Mr. Ellingson. Let’s get started. Also: If you’d like, I would be happy to meet you at the pull-up bar this June. See if you can do more than twenty.

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