Last Thursday was my last day of school for the year, or at least, the last day for the kids. We still had a “work day” on Friday, but as always, all of my end of the year work was done by Thursday, and of necessity, all real teaching and learning ended a few days earlier so as to make time for final tests, final grades, and all of the things one must do to more or less shut down what is, for nine months of the year, essentially a small city.
The end of the school year is always bittersweet. On one hand, the sense of accomplishment I get from completing a school year, from all we’ve done, is most satisfying. This year is like most others in that regard. Many of the kids have made real intellectual and social gains. They’re better writers and thinkers, and I’m pleased and honored to have had a hand in that process. Some have made exceptional gains, and some have worked damned hard to fail miserably. My general rule about such things: if they’re going to work that hard to fail, who am I to stand in their way? Oh well. They’ll have the opportunity to take the class again, or to gain the credit in other ways. Perhaps they’ll have at least learned that taking the same class again for a year isn’t particularly fun. Thankfully, most do.
There are always a few in each class that just click with my methods and me. I work hard to be sure that every student fully understands our work and how to improve, but some just fit perfectly and work diligently. It is these students, even more than honors kids in many cases, who can jump several years or more in nine short months. They take my suggestions seriously and implement them, and they understand, at least intuitively, that good students bring out the best in good teachers. It is these kids that will hug me on the way out the door and will not be satisfied with a handshake. I’m never entirely comfortable with student hugs, but for them, I make an exception because they are unquestionably thankful and sincere.
I require a complete portfolio—a green hanging file actually—for all of the kids. They have several manila folders within, and must store all of their work for the year in chronological order in specific folders. Not only does this help them develop organizational skills, it provides great feedback for parents when—if—they come for parent/teacher nights (all two of them in a year). It’s interesting to learn that most of the kids have never used a filing cabinet, seen a hanging file, or used a manila folder, and I have to explain chronological order repeatedly before most get it. Some never do. We do so many assignments—170 this year; more than 200 for honors students–I have to empty their folders at the end of the first semester and store the contents.
One of my original aphorisms: Never underestimate a student’s intelligence, but never overestimate their information.
At the end of the year, I return the manila folder with all of their first semester work, and we clean out their portfolios. I encourage them all to take the time to review what they’ve done, not only the sheer volume, but how much they’ve improved. The sheer volume of paper impresses them, but some take the time to read things over, and some take most of it home. Good for them. Of course, most simply throw things away after a cursory glance. At least they had the chance.
At the beginning of the year, I take a group photo of every class and put it on the glass adjacent my classroom door. The kids look at it and laugh over the year, but I tell them to be sure to see it once more when they leave for the last time. Physically, many have changed relatively little, but most have changed greatly. Some who appeared to be about six in August have matured very, very fast. At this point in their lives, kids can change with unbelievable speed, and they wonder at it and delight in it—as do I.
The final day is always sad. It is sad because when I speak about this to the kids, within a few minutes, our class will never meet again. Each class develops its own unique personality made up of all of them. Some are natural leaders—in a variety of ways—but all come along and grow and become more outgoing. Because we laugh in my room every day, that process is rapid and natural. Kids who would never have believed they would feel comfortable reading aloud, acting a part in a play, or talking like a pirate in front of others find themselves doing it without a second thought and enjoying the process. There’s no secret to it really. I simply don’t do anything I don’t consider valuable, and I believe learning not only can be fun, it should be fun. It’s always hard work, and hard work not only can be fun, it should be satisfying. When I’m enthusiastic about our work and am obviously looking forward to it and enjoying it, they tend to come along for the ride.
Our final minutes together are sad indeed, but joyous as well. I tell them it has been an honor to be their teacher, and it has. There are, in some classes, and for some kids, tears, and in those classes, I often shed a few too. By the end of the year, they’re used to that from me. Honest emotion and beautiful literature and music often move me to tears. Do you trust anyone who isn’t moved by the mere thought of Tiny Tim’s death? I suspect it’s a reaction to all of those police years when tears weren’t possible. Can’t have the police falling apart emotionally when everything is going to hell. Now, it’s not something to be resisted, but welcomed. The kids get that, bless them. They get a great deal. Like dogs, kids know who really likes them. Woof!
Some kids will come back later, after class, to tell me how much I meant to them. I never let them leave without knowing how much they meant to me—and they do, every one.
Some people are just more likeable at any age than others. Some people are simply awful human beings. I’m prepared to like all of my kids, and in virtually every case, I do. It’s not hard, because it’s my job to take them from where they are when they first walk into my room as far along the road of learning and growth as possible. In that process, we learn about each other, and that closeness teaches me many things about them, like the girl who already has a baby and is struggling to graduate. Smart as a whip and a hard worker, she often falls asleep in class, and I often let her. She’ll make up what she missed, and her work will be better than that of most. She’s working full time, going to school full time, and doing her best to be a good mother. Am I going to judge her? Yes. I judge that she has more character and determination in her exhausted little finger than most people have in their entire bodies, and I’m going to do all I can to help her succeed. Unlike some, she will never depend on the public to support her or her child, and teaching that is part of what we do. She’s already learned it.
Because I don’t take things personally, because I give all of my kids the same opportunities, they don’t take things personally, and even those I fail tend to hold no grudges. They know why they failed. They know I gave them every chance—and more—to succeed, and so do their parents. I don’t play favorites, and the grades some of my best kids get on some assignments when they try to coast quickly convinces them—and their classmates—of that. Yes, honors students fail too. The major difference is that when they are failing, they know how to pull themselves out of the hole and build up their grades again, and they have the determination to do it.
I worry, as always, that I have not done enough, that I haven’t taught the right things in the right ways. This year, I have had less class time to teach than ever before. I’ll spend much of the summer revising my curriculum, trying to do more with less time. In the past, for example, we always performed at least three acts of Julius Caesar before seeing the classic version with Marlon Brando as Antony. This year, we could manage only about an act and a half before turning to the film. That meant that about a fourth of the kids didn’t truly have the English of the late 1500’s in their heads. They really didn’t understand it. I have to hope the movie helps make up the difference. I don’t like guessing that way.
For teachers, school begins in mid-August. I’ll be there in mid-July at the latest, making the major copies I’ll need for the year: the research paper handout (that’s undergoing a major revision this summer), the literature terms handout, the poetry unit handout, the media unit handout, and a variety of others. I want their portfolios ready and filled with what they’ll need on the first day. I don’t have time to spare for passing things out and filing. They’ll learn that as we go. Because money is tight and because the copiers we lease are commonly most effectively employed as boat anchors, I’m also going to do everything I can to minimize paper use this year. That means I’ll have to create a great many PowerPoint substitutes, and that’s a problem because the damned projector bulbs cost several hundred dollars each and always blow out when you need the most. Of course, there are never replacements around when you need them. False economy? Perhaps.
It may sound as though I’m complaining, and to a small extent, I am. But I never lose sight of the fact that I am blessed. As I tell the kids when they ask me why I’m always smiling, I am doing exactly what I want to do, exactly where I want to do it. They should be so fortunate when they venture out into the world of work.
I work with fine colleagues, for good principals whose hearts are in the right place, in a generally quiet and comfortable community that supports us. I’m blessed too with a wife who is truly a saint. She works with our special education kids. You have no idea.
So I’ll sleep in a bit, ride the bike, pump some iron, study our music for this year, and read a great deal. We finished school on Friday. As I write this on Sunday, I’ve already completed four books: Mark Levin’s Ameritopia, Katie Pavlich’s Fast and Furious: Barack Obama’s Bloodiest Scandal and its Shameless Coverup, Stephen Coonts’ The Sea Witch, and Marcus Luttrell’s Service: A Navy Seal At War. I have a stack—still growing, of at least thirty to reduce. I read quickly, which is not a bad skill for a teacher of English, I suppose.
I’m already looking forward to meeting my new classes. I’m getting older every year, but my kids are always 15. The years pass too quickly. . .