It’s interesting, gentle readers, where memory takes us, unbidden, unexpected. I was this afternoon, suddenly back in my last semester of teaching. It wasn’t a happy memory, because we went on Spring Break only to learn we would not return to school again that year. For Mrs. Manor and me, we would never return to school, to our kids, to all we meant to each other.
We had plans for those final days, the final days of our formal teaching careers. We would have a retirement party, which was frankly more important to Mrs. Manor. I would attend for the cake. The people who really mattered, who really cared, would make their goodbyes without that ceremony. I suspect many of the rest came for the cake too. Most of all, we would have our final, precious days with our kids.
We had none of that.
We were, thankfully, spared the lunacy of masking, social distancing, and all the other clownish and harmful aspects of Covid theater, except “distance learning,” which I’ve elsewhere exposed as the fraud it is. But we were not spared the anguish of never having the opportunity to teach our kids all we could have taught. The anguish of not being able to see them, in person, one last time to properly say goodbye. The article I’m reposting here was my goodbye. I did that every year, but never with the heaviness of heart of that final message
I don’t know that it will give me, or them, any real satisfaction. I know for many of my students, I was just another teacher to be endured at a time of their lives when so many other, trivial, things seemed far more important—though mostly unremembered—than school. How often do we wish, once old enough to understand, we could better relive all those hours, those days, we squandered? But there were others who understood, who appreciated all I did for them, and took advantage of those opportunities. Perhaps you might too, gentle readers. We begin the end—again:
The end of the school year is a bittersweet time for teachers. It’s satisfying to complete a year—or semester–of hard work. Accomplishment is satisfying. But it’s always sad, because our classes have met for the final time. Each class with its unique personality, comprised of the unique personalities of each of you, will die, never to be reborn.
This year is particularly bittersweet. After more than a quarter century of teaching, Mrs. McDaniel and I are leaving, retiring. It’s sad too because when we left for a well deserved Spring Break, we had no idea we would never see you again. Never would we all be together with a common purpose. Never again would you all make it so easy for me to smile and to have hope for the future. It’s like losing an old, beloved friend many times over.
Does this surprise you? You didn’t know I felt that way about you? I do, and so do all dedicated teachers. We don’t do this because it makes us younger and prettier.
Teaching is not about the princely salary and the unlimited love and respect of the public. It’s about being a part of something bigger than oneself, something with the potential to change lives, to build a better future. It’s about giving that others might become more than they are, that they might build bigger, better, more capable brains. It’s about helping my students become smart, thoughtful, observant citizens, people who produce, who contribute to America’s future rather than taking from those that do. Someone is going to have to pay for my Social Security checks so I can retire in unimaginable luxury.
Most of all, it’s about the sheer wonder of having a hand in your growth. I don’t mean physical growth—though that’s always amazing and often, surprising—but the intellectual and emotional growth the study of literature and writing makes possible.
I delight in each shy, quiet girl who becomes confident and outgoing, more woman than girl. I take great pleasure in each rambunctious boy that discovers that reading might not be so bad after all, that he might even like poetry and there might be something to that whole “thinking about stuff” thing. Maybe those old dead, white guys just might have had something worthwhile to say after all.
By the way guys, I understand you can’t really admit that out loud. As you become more man than boy that will get easier, but for now, it will be our secret. And I smile with satisfaction at each student who remembers that “there is a tide,” means to take advantage of one’s opportunities. It’s always good to carry a little Shakespeare (Julius Caesar) with us.
All year–all semester–I worried I was not exposing you to enough great literature. I worried that I was not giving you sufficient opportunity to write, and that I was not writing back to you with sufficient understanding and insight, or as often as I should. I worried that I wasn’t adequate to the task with which your parents entrusted me: providing the best educational opportunity I could manage. I had less time to do that every year, but I never stopped trying. Imagine how I felt when I lost a quarter of my year long classes and half of my second semester classes.
As I look back on this year, at missed opportunities, and at what might have been, I see your faces, and I smile, because I know you’re going to be fine as long as you remember what Mark Twain said:
Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.
Your education is, well, yours. It really is up to you. All the best teacher that ever lived could do is provide the best educational opportunities their abilities and resources allowed. That’s what I tried to do. You missed a great deal of opportunity this year. It’s up to you to make that up. You might start with…oh, I don’t know…READING?!!!
Do you know what great kids you are? Every day I read about the horrors of kids in schools elsewhere in the nation, and then I look at you as we start each class. I tell you it’s good to see you because it is. You’re smart, polite, caring, and good to each other, and of course, to me. I’m proud of you; we all are, not just for your academic accomplishments, but for who you are, for your everyday tender mercies.
As I’ve told you from our first day together, school is about more than the materials we study. You maintained portfolios to get into the habit of dealing with small details, because life is mostly about getting small things right. You were required to learn to listen and to be quiet at the appropriate times because that too is what life is about. You studied vocabulary because words are thoughts made manifest, and you needed to become more than you were at the beginning of the year. Benjamin Franklin was right:
Don’t squander time, because that’s what life is made of.
You remember that daily saying, don’t you? We did daily sayings because you needed to learn to think, to see the important lessons in the small things of life, because that’s where most of them are found.
Everything we did, from “Name That Tune” on Fridays, to “Talk Like A Pirate Day,” to every writing assignment, had a purpose: to help you build skills, to help you become a more effective and competent human being. We studied science fiction because it expands your possibilities; it helps you think more broadly. Someday, you’ll understand why we did some assignments you didn’t particularly appreciate at the time. You may never appreciate them, but you’ll be better for the experience anyway. That’s because part of what we did was to stress you, to make you think, to work and to accomplish new things, word by new word, paragraph by paragraph, essay by essay. That’s how we grow, become adults, become more than we were on the first day we entered a classroom, wondering what kind of lunatic this English teacher would turn out to be.
When I taught earnest young men and women to be police officers, I taught them the seven magic words: “please, thank you,” and “you are under arrest.” Hopefully, you’ll never need or hear the last four magic words, but we emphasized the first three because being polite is also what life is about. Some of you even learned that it’s possible to survive for 45 minutes at a time without manipulating a cell phone, or without something stuck in your ears. You even managed to avoid going into texting withdrawal seizures, though for some of you it was a near thing.
Perhaps the most important thing you learned is the necessity of paying attention, a lesson many of you only began in earnest this year, and if you’re wise, will work toward the rest of your life. Did you hear what I just said? Ha ha! That’s a little English teacher joke!
You’ll have other teachers in your life, and since I’m moving back to Wyoming, where the deer and the antelope play, and the skies are not cloudy all day (hey, that rhymed!), you’re not going to be able to stop by my classroom to see your old—and getting older—English teacher. I understand. It’s time for you to move on. That too is a part of life. You’ve learned what you can from me and it’s time to learn from others. If I did it right, you’ll be better able to learn from them. You’ll be as important to them as you are to me, and for the rest, we’ll have to make do with our memories. If you paid attention, you’re better able to remember too.
Before I close this final lesson, a few questions (you could see that coming, couldn’t you?): Did you pay attention as often and as fully as you should; were you in the instant? Did you take full advantage of your learning opportunities (did you catch the tide?)? Were you as kind and helpful to others as you could and should have been? Did you decide, like me, to approach each day happy and smiling? That’s a conscious choice you know. We can’t control everything that happens to us, but how we deal with life is a choice over which we have absolute control. Your success in this class depended upon it; so will your success in life (did you notice how I used that semicolon?).
It has been an honor and pleasure to be your teacher this year, particularly since you were my final classes.
Thanks for reading this final assignment, and for being such great kids. I’ll miss you more than you know. Godspeed, and remember:
Sic transit Gloria mundi (if you have to look it up, shame on you!)