When you teach, you reach a point at the end of the year where a blend of emotions trespass upon you and take you hostage. You are pleased to complete another year, excited at the prospects of next year’s plans, relieved that you survived various mishaps, afraid of what trials await you the following year, regretful of your mistakes, proud of the students you see moving on to their next adventures, mournful of the ones you will miss the most, tickled by the appreciation they have shown (well, some of them), but sometimes mostly empty—empty because that is your room at the end of the last day, your room for the entire summer.
This emptiness you try to fill with the memories of the year, of the students who were under your care.
I teach juniors and seniors in high school, and this marks the first year I will see an entire class graduate whom I have taught for two years in a row. When you’re in a situation like mine, saying goodbye takes on a rare emotional mix of poignancy and gratification. I am likely to experience it year after year.
Tonight, I will watch all of them “walk,” commencing out of this stage of their l ives and into—well, you know how it goes. You’ve heard enough graduation speeches.
I will miss the ones who looked up to me, impressed me, made me feel successful as a teacher. I will miss even the ones who frustrated me, challenged me, made me question how I do things as a teacher. Most students fit in both these categories. They are all growing, complex, multi-faceted young humans about to enter adulthood and prove their skills and knowledge to the world. Maybe you had kids like this:
- The one who started out seemingly unable to not turn around and talk to the boy behind him, who completely (and literally) turned himself around the following year
- The one who always tried to sit upright with one leg bent, pretzel-like, on his desk
- The one who drew me a sketch of The Avett Brothers bearing a canoe across a river
- The one who made me a green, plush nerdy cat to put on my desk
- The one who came from Thailand and exemplified both excellent handwriting and respect for teachers (both a lost art in American society)
- The one who once broke the world sneezing record, only to turn and say, “I barfed up my medicine this morning.”
- The one who once stepped on her own hair
- The one they called “Jew”
- The one who always wrote those dark, fierce poems and shared them bravely
- The one broke my stool, then fixed it himself by hand
- The one who promised me he would become an art teacher and return to share the halls with me again
- The one who nearly flipped a girl over a desk while trying to demonstrate how a semicolon works
These and more once populated my room. Now they have abandoned this place I must return to for at least another year.
And so it goes. Year after year. It is rewarding to see them all enter into life’s next set of challenges, yet also a little scary. Are there ways in which I might have failed to prepare them? To what extent am I responsible for mistakes they make in the future because I did not prepare them?
So many lessons I imagine fell on deaf ears, but I also know that some lessons were seeds planted early. I may not get to see the fruition of all the major lessons until later, when I hear stories of the steady jobs they will hold, the responsibilities they manage to juggle well, the contributions to their community that have amplified since their departure. The longer I do this, I tell myself, the more rewards I will see return as they return. Live long enough, I tell myself, and I can teach their children. And sometimes that is unsettling too.
An empty classroom. There’s sometimes sad about that.
But there’s also something that screams “summer!”
This teacher has had a mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausting year. As much as he will miss his students, he is most certainly ready to leave his classroom empty for the next to months.
Congratulations to the class of 2015.