This is the last day of instruction for our school, for this year anyway. Most of my classes took a final, and I had brief individual conferences with another class about each student’s final project.
I think we learn as we get older to control our emotions so they don’t get the better of us. Some learn that lesson harder than others, and some never do, but man, if this moment doesn’t test those masking lessons I don’t know what to tell you. Actually, I’d imagine that not many people know what to tell you about what’s really going on inside them right now. I keep discovering I was wrong about how I felt, and it’s not been my favorite thing about the pandemic.
The best thing, for me, right now, and what I hope to hold onto for a long time, is watching students fight that masking tendency and letting their emotions win. One student in particular, a senior who I’ve been blessed to teach for the past 6 years (the photo above is from the first week of her 7th-grade year), has expressed her feelings about this situation — the losses, the conflicts, the frustrations — really articulately, and has helped me understand much better what other students might be feeling as well but are afraid or unwilling to express. Watching this student display her struggle fills me with admiration for her courage and compassion: today, one of the things that weighed heavily on her was how some other students were treating another teacher.
As a teacher of the humanities in a world that increasingly seems to consider the humanities irrelevant, I often wonder if I’m reaching students. With most, it’s hard to know. The student I’ve been talking about was that way for my first 4 or 5 years with her. I had a hard time reading her. Something changed this year. She turned into a very self-aware person, someone I admire and am inspired by because of her depth of feeling for others and her ability to read and interpret subtleties in people and literature. I have had very few students I can say have reached this point. At the risk of appearing to congratulate myself for any of this (because, after all, she might have developed herself despite being subjected to me these 6 years), it gives me hope that I do reach at least some students. Everyone wants to matter somehow. This student makes me feel what I do has mattered. I’m gonna hang onto that.
I’m also grateful to have this video of her reciting one of the three poems she memorized for the 2020 Idaho State Poetry Out Loud competition last March. While she didn’t win the competition, she understood her poems viscerally and intellectually and treated them with the kind of compassion and respect I see her practicing in her daily life. I hope you find it as moving as I do.
All students sparkle. Looking over my rosters, every single student’s name elicits memories of being moved by something he or she did or said. Maybe this should be required self-therapy for teachers. (Maybe all teachers already do this but never admit it, or maybe I just haven’t been paying attention.) This year’s graduating class, like last year’s, and the year before, and all the years before that, is filled with cumulative moments of beauty that I should dwell on more than I do. Two other students in Morgan’s class have also been with me for 6 years and have become very dear to me, and I could write extensively about each of them (Brielle, not least because she’s the only student I’ve had who plans to major in a humanities field, and Carly, not least because she has worked her ass off this year to become a good student — finally — and succeeded famously), as well as two non-identical twins who’ve worked hard for me and taken me mostly seriously for four years (including the one who thinks it’s hilarious to call me by my first name). Part of what feels wrong about not having the closure we’ve come to expect at the end of each year is that — despite the blessings of the virtual — we can’t hug, be hugged, watch others hug, and be watched hugging those we care about and are going to miss. We can say all we want, write all we can, but it’s not the same. These students have understood the reality of this far more clearly than I have since they learned we weren’t going to return to the building as a community. They are better readers of moments than I am. For me, that makes them legendary.
Finally, it seems to me that being a teacher is like having dogs. You have them a short time, you lose tons of sleep over them, they worm their way into your heart, and then they’re gone. And you get new ones. And over and over. It’s an addictive masochism. The teachers who last resist the urge to harden their hearts in self-protection against this vicious, draining cycle. It’s good — it’s profoundly human — to let it hurt, but it does take a toll. I’m just now realizing this. I’m a slow learner. Thank goodness I have legendary students. I wonder who’s next.