26 April 2011

Letting Go

This past Saturday at 7:30pm, I found myself getting off a school bus for the last time this year. We had arrived back from the Minnesota High School League State Speech Tournament. It was the last speech tournament of the year. We went. We spoke. We conquered (kind of). I was acutely aware of the fact that it was the last time I would work with this particular group of students. Watching those students file off the bus for the last time this season was a bit like a little bereavement. Many of them were seniors. Most of them would not be back the following year. It was an ending. And for those of you who have never spoken to me and are unaware of this, I have never been a fan of endings.
As a teacher, each June I must send my students out into the real world, aware of the fact that many I will never see or hear from again. They will become just another face in what will inevitably become a vast ocean of faces populating my career. And that's part of the job. And as a teacher, I can let go gracefully--sometimes shedding a few tears, but mostly just wishing them well--and believe everyone has done their job well enough to prepare said student for the real world. And so I wave goodbye and calmly file away grade reports, attendance reports, tests and essays and tuck away another year, already thinking ahead to the new crop of students to experience Gatsby, Mockingbird, and Shakespeare. Such is the nature of teaching.
But no matter how high we build our professional walls, no matter how long we teach or coach, no matter how carefully we guard against becoming "emotionally attached," a few students slip through the cracks. We try to keep our distance, but the truth of teaching is that some kids will touch our lives just as much as we hope to touch theirs. Thus far in my career I've escaped each year relatively unscathed. This year, however, as I look at the students preparing for graduation, I know that something is profoundly different in this ending. I know this goodbye will be a bit harder. This parting a little more bitter than sweet.
This year's class of seniors was my first class I taught at my high school. Many of these students I remember from my first day. A few I have worked with daily for the past three years. I've offered Kleenex when relationships fell apart, given pep talks when friendships were weak in times of need, and cajoled one young man off the floor outside my classroom when a stress meltdown/hissy fit prompted him to collapse on the floor, begging to be excused from class for the day. I offered hugs to those tearful team members who watched their dreams of state disappear, and I offered equally tearful hugs to those who made it happen. I've gotten cards and Sour Patch kids galore, and now feel a bit closer to ready to send them off. But I haven't mentally or emotionally prepared myself for graduation yet. Baby steps.
If there is anything I hope my students leave with, it is the knowledge that someone cared--and always will. I still remember those teachers who made a difference in my life--Mr. Gerads, Ms. Braun, Ms. Schraw--and I will be eternally grateful to them in ways they will never know. I am who I am because these men and women changed my life, and I owe them much more than I could ever say. I look at my own students and know I don't need eternal gratitude, or even to have radically altered their lives. I just hope to know I did my job. And did it well. Anything past that is just bonus.
So as much as I hate endings, I have prepared myself for this one, and will resolutely--and with as much grace as my tears will allow--say goodbye to a truly phenomenal group of students. I became a teacher to change lives. I had no idea they would change mine.
Happy Graduation to the Class of 2011.