Yesterday I said goodbye to another crop of seniors. As I knew in August when I met them, they broke my heart. They didn't do it on purpose and I'm not complaining because I signed on knowing I'd be devastated and besides, it's worth it.
A long time ago, my mentor, a man named Dan Daniel, and I discussed the fact that the way we relate to our kids made it a foregone conclusion that the last day of school would, barring some personal disaster, be the saddest day on the calendar. That's because we both have made the conscious choice to let our kids in. There are teachers who choose, consciously or not, to keep the relationship purely professional. They are the vendor and the students are the clients. There is an element of this for me, but I am simply not wired to leave it at that. I adopt my kids. They are my students and I do everything I can to teach them what they need to succeed in college, but they are also my children. They can come to me and talk about their life choices. They can eat lunch in my room and chat. They can cry on my shoulder when their loved ones are sick or even dying or when their girlfriend or boyfriend turns out to be a jerk. And because I allow myself to become a part of their personal lives, they automatically become part of mine. When you eat lunch with somebody almost every day for ten months, you become family.
But the time we have together is, by definition, finite. It has an expiration date. While the relationship between a parent and a child changes when the kid goes off to college, they still remain parent and child. When my kids leave, I am their "old English teacher." And in many ways that's sad. But it's also okay. For that short period of time, our relationship becomes quite intense and several kids, especially girls for some reason, grow to see me as a father figure. The times over the last couple of weeks I cried the hardest were when I got letters from students who talked of not having a real, reliable father in their lives and of how grateful they were to have, if only for this short time, a stable surrogate who was there for them literally every day. That's humbling. To know that I had the opportunity to show those kids that there are men who will love them unconditionally and won't take advantage of them is such a blessing and such a responsibility--a responsibility I don't take for granted or take lightly.
And yes, from time to time, a kid sticks beyond the terminus. I have lifelong friends who were once students. Their relationship morphed from teacher/student into friends and, in some cases, I have remained that father figure. That is one of the greatest joys in my life. Recently, I was visited by a former student who is now a doctor in Hershey, PA. She is, in every way that matters, a daughter in my heart and mind. She graduated almost fifteen years ago. Another young lady who lives in New Orleans who graduated even longer ago than that, is a real, significant part of my life. I visit her and she visits me. I got to see her graduate from law school and even officiated her wedding. Both of these people are my family as sure as my parents and siblings are. And there are others who, to some degree or another, remain close. This year, I can sense that there are a handful of kids who are going to hang around. How long is up to them. I would be happy if that were for a lifetime, but I'll settle for as long as they need me.
But mostly, that's just not true. A former student posted a picture today on her Facebook page of the last day of her senior year six years ago. I was first struck by how different the room looked, but then I was hit with the fact that, of the dozen or so faces I could see, there were maybe three or four I could actually name. Does that mean I didn't love those kids? No. Does it mean I wasn't important in their lives for that period of time? I would hope not. But my place in their lives was designed to be intense and short. Then, if we did it right, they would leave with warm memories of their wacky senior English teacher but also with some life lessons that would help guide them through college and life beyond. Lessons about love of literature, of course, but even more important were the lessons I tried to teach them about loving your fellow humans and about finding God and about living life with joy and passion and about doing the right thing even when it's difficult--or especially when it's difficult.
As I read back over this, I fear it makes me sound like some sort of saint, but the opposite is true. As I fought through my tears yesterday at the end of each class period, one thing I told each group was, that no matter what they think, I am the one who benefits most from this relationship. I get to have kids to love and hug and support for ten months and then I send them off to college with not a single bill to pay. But even more than that, they bring me joy and enthusiasm and zest for life. I often get mistaken for being younger than my 51 years, and that's all because of them. Teaching will either make you old fast or, if you're in it for the right reasons, it will keep you young forever.
So here's to never getting old.