Life Sentence

River Hess

In a handful of words, who are you? What was your impact? This was not the question posed to students in Laura Schinstock’s Senior English class in September of 2019. Instead, they were asked what they wanted the people they cared about to say those words were after they were gone. A little heavy, isn’t it? Granted, yours truly is far from qualified to speak on the philosophical matters of mortality and one’s legacy, but I am willing to say that it is a question worthy of its perplexity. So, where did Mrs. Schinstock get the idea to ask a few dozen young adults about what they wanted to leave behind? As it happens, this was from a pair of sources that tie appropriately into the novel that the IHS class of 2020 is, at the time of this article being written, in the process of reading and analyzing, The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch. The book made its rounds just over a decade ago, around the time Randy passed away due to pancreatic cancer in 2008, and has since sold over five million copies. It chronicles Randy’s life, his achievements (and what an accomplished man he was!), and sheds light on how he coped after receiving his prognosis just seven months before he would succumb to the ten tumors in his pancreas (without spoiling a sentence of his story, he was anything but mopey or grim). In essence, the book, as well as the recording of the actual lecture Randy gave which will at some point be played for each of his three children, is Randy’s legacy. The book is Randy. Randy, though, got a sixty-one chapter book; Schinstock’s students are for the time being given a sentence. This is inspired in part by something posed to president John Kennedy by Clare Boothe Luce, a writer, ambassador, and one of the earliest female congresspersons. “A great man,” she told him, “Is a sentence.” Lincoln’s was “He preserved the Union and freed the slaves.” Roosevelt’s was “He lifted the country out of a depression and won a world war.” Kennedy, she said, was trying to do so many things that he risked his sentence becoming a muddled thesis. Dan Pink described this in his book, Drive, then implored his readers to contemplate what they wanted their sentences to be and to reflect daily on how they were making it so. Schinstock’s other muse? A warm series of videos posted to YouTube by Carrie Wisehart, another teacher also inspired by Pink’s script. Wisehart recorded students from a number of her classes individually holding up and narrating pieces of paper with special “life sentences” of their own or in honor of others written ornately on them, which is precisely what Schinstock’s students were assigned to create. Theirs will be laminated and displayed on the walls adjacent to Schinstock’s classroom door in the coming weeks. Thus, the question is begged: what do you want your sentence to be?