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Do Your Best and Remember . . .

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This post was written by Lee Ann Potter, the Director of Educational Outreach at the Library of Congress.

My son is graduating from high school this coming weekend and I am feeling mixed emotions.

On the one hand, I am proud, excited, and looking forward to what the future holds. On the other hand, I feel the winds of change, and with them a bit of sadness and apprehension about what lies ahead.

At times like this, I take comfort in knowing that I am not the first person to feel this way. Connecting with primary sources always helps.  (Seriously, it does.)

Leonard Bernstein

A few months ago, I came across a letter that I found particularly comforting. Leonard Bernstein’s mother wrote it to him in 1939 (most likely), when he was in his early 20s—not much older than my son.

She wrote . . .

Dear Son,

How are you? Are you really happy? My but the house got so quite [sic] since you left and the piano looks like another stick of furniture to dust off every day. Are you being bothered by the dust in Philadelphia If so, I’d suggest to take a few inoculations against dust. I hope that you are eating good square meals, as you know that good food is essential to prevent colds.

I hope to see you in New York very soon if things work out alright. I am so very happy for you that things worked out the way you hoped it would. Things can come out very nice for one at times also visa versa or some such stuff.

Sooooo do your best, and remember that your whole future depends on what you do now. Who can tell you may earn a fellowship that will give you a chance to do something you always wanted to do, but I’m day dreaming again, or does your mind and mine run in the same channel (I hope I spelled that right). Please write soon and in detail.

With much love to you, and I do mean you,


P.S. Answer Bert’s letter. He’s wondering why you don’t write to him.

Leonard Bernstein (whose papers at the Library of Congress contain thousands of pieces of correspondence including this letter) became an extraordinarily successful composer, conductor, author, music lecturer, and pianist. He was among the first conductors born and educated in the United States who received worldwide acclaim. He directed the New York Philharmonic, and he became well known for writing the music for Hollywood’s On the Waterfront, and Broadway’s West Side Story, Peter Pan, and many others.

But at the time his mother wrote the letter, he had not yet shared his many gifts with the world.

When Leonard left home, his mom missed him—in his absence, the piano had become simply a dusty “stick of furniture.”  She wanted him to be happy.  She worried about his health, wanted to make sure he wasn’t suffering from allergies, and hoped he was eating well.  She was also proud of him.  She both supported his dreams and shared them.

Her messages resonate with me. I, too, will miss my son when he goes off to college this fall. I want him to eat well and be healthy. I want him to do his best. And, of course, I want him to write often and in detail. But, most of all, I want him to follow his dreams and know that I share them.

I suspect that many of you, with graduates in your lives who will be heading off to new adventures in the fall, can relate.

Congratulations to every graduate out there, and to their teachers, friends and families!

If you have found an item in the Library’s collections that has a connection to graduation and resonates with you, please tell us about it.



  1. What a terrific post, Danna, for those of us with empty nests! Thank you.

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