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Letter to Seniors: Joe Deffner

Dear Seniors,

The hairstyle in my senior photo (above) is the male counterpart, I guess, to the hairstyle that Karyn Neubauer included with her letter to all of you.  I’m guessing that unlike Karyn, though, I stayed with that look longer than I should have.  I rocked that look through college, through the Peace Corps (“Did I ever tell you I was in the Peace Corps?”), and well into the 90s.  For more than 10 years, my hair was parted in the middle and “feathered back.”  

As I was thinking about what I wanted to say to you, I realized that everyone has been giving you advice about what you should do, and who you should become. And that’s my first piece of advice: Don’t listen to all the advice you will be given (except if they are giving you advice about your hairstyle––then you might want to listen).  

A couple of examples of bad advice come to mind.  As a 17 year-old, I was once advised to become an engineer.  Mr. Deffner, an engineer?  Ludicrous, I know.  If Ms. Deibler is reading this, she is probably falling out of her chair from laughing hysterically. Being an engineer didn’t seem like a good idea at the time (I earned a D- in calculus as a senior in high school), but I looked into it anyhow and applied to some engineering schools. I eventually realized what bad advice this was.

Later, as a college sophomore majoring in education, and believing I had found my calling to become a teacher, a history professor stopped me after class and said, “Mr. Deffner, you’re smart.  Why do you want to become a teacher?”  I’m still processing why this history professor thought that this was an appropriate question to ask a student, but because I was a little more sure of myself, and a little more sure of who I wanted to be, I was able to dismiss this professor’s advice.  I realized he was advising me to become someone I wasn’t.  

My second piece of advice was shared with me when I was about your age.  I don’t mind telling you that at the time,  I was clueless, scared, and unsure of what I wanted to do with my life.  I expressed these concerns to a trusted mentor.  This wise person, a teacher and someone I respected, simply looked at me and said, “Joseph, very few decisions in life are irreversible.”  

I have never forgotten that man, that conversation, and that piece of advice.  And so after some time in Navy ROTC in college, when I realized that it wasn’t really my thing, I left the program.  And when I realized that Penn State University (a school attended by my three older sisters) was not a good fit, I transferred.  

And after four-and-a-half weeks in the Catholic seminary studying to be a priest, it was clear to me that being a priest definitely wasn’t my calling.  (That could be the subject of another letter, short story, or memoir, but the important thing, as my brother-in-law likes to say, “It turns out that the call was a wrong number.”)  So, I left the seminary. 

It took me a while, but I did figure it out, and I’ve been at Thetford Academy for more than 25 years, You, too, will find your way. So don’t hesitate to try things that seem like a risk, and don’t be afraid to change course as needed.  Some of you are off to college, some of you are going to work, at least one of you is going to the military, and some of you probably don’t know what you want to do.  And that’s fine. Try out a life path and see if it’s a good fit for you.  And if it isn’t, regroup and try another path.  

But don’t wait as long as I did to change my hairstyle!  You all deserve much better.

Congratulations, Class of 2020.  Keep in touch with all of us here at TA.  We’ll miss you.

Best Wishes,

Joe Deffner

Class of ’83



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