The End, 2017 Edition

Last year, one of the teachers on our team was a novice. Like all new teachers, she began the year with a little trepidation and a lot of excitement. When the year ended and students were walking off the eighth-grade hallway for the last time, she got a little teary.

“You going to get all sentimental this year,” I asked a few days ago.

“No,” she replied quickly.

It’s a common enough reaction: that first year, watching the kids leave and knowing you won’t see them again, you feel a little sinking feeling. They’re your kids, your first kids. The ones that taught you more about teaching than any class in college ever did. You fall in love with them in a way: they’re special, even the ones who drive you crazy. And when they leave, you’re not quite sure you’ll ever have kids that you feel so warmly about, kids quite like this. After a year or two, though, you see that the next batch of kids comes in and replaces the old batch. You can’t even recall many names from the last year without stopping to concentrate on the task. And you feel just the same way about this group as you did last year’s.

It’s then that you stop being quite so sentimental about it all–and all teachers, no matter how cynical or burned out they are now, were sentimental about teaching at one point–and realize, yes, you will have kids just like this next year.

There will be another Susan, whose loud and constant talking drives you nuts but who seems to have a potential about her that she herself doesn’t even fully realize.

You will have another Albert, who sometimes can’t foresee the consequences of his actions or the implications of his body language and so comes across sometimes as being quite a disrespectful child.

Another Amelia will sit among your students, seeming always to be enveloped in a happiness that spreads to all around her.

There will be another Chester, who has poor physical and social coordination and tries to make it up by showing off intellectually.

Another Davonte will dance through our door and then proceed to do nothing. Ever.

Every student you have this year will come back next year–and the next, and the next, and the next–with a different name, a different face, but the same basic personality. Or with a similar face and different name and radically different personality. Or any and all combinations of those three, hardly exhaustive possibilities.

For a teacher, it’s not the end. It never is, until you quit teaching.

Another End

“I am not going to cry,” said the girl with mascara running. She looked at me as if I’d suggested she might take to a life of crime for the fun of it upon finishing middle school.

“You never know,” I smiled.

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It’s the ones who are most convinced they aren’t going to cry that end up crying the most. They end up putting to shame the few brave souls who admit days in advance, “When it’s time to leave that last day, I’m going to start bawling.”

I still find it sweet, this youthful reluctance to let go of the past. “You’re going to be laughing about it over social media in a few minutes,” all the teachers insisted, but that doesn’t provide solace. A young heart in a sense loves to ache. Or maybe I’m just speaking for my own youth.

Measuring Success

They come in as strangers, and by now, their reactions and behavior are almost predictable. I have only a few more days with these students who’ve undergone so many transformation in less than a year, and then soon, they’ll be strangers again. One or two will send an occasional email, that’s certain; I’ll see one or two here or there every how and then. Some have younger siblings, so I’ll see them at awards nights in the future or in the car line if their sibling is the first dropped off. The rest, though, disappear for all intents and purposes, as I repeat the process next year, learning new names, new faces, new habits.

How do I know if it’s been a successful year, though? What metric allows me to make this determination? Is a letter from a student enough? Are test scores enough? (Our principal informed us that our End of Course exams for high school credit courses were the best “in a long time.” Is that a good metric?)

Almost May

It’s almost May, and we’re all breathing a sigh of relief. Students are ready to finish eighth grade, to finish middle school, to leave their academic home of three years and move on to high school. Teachers are ready for a new batch, new faces, new challenges, new gifts. Each day, we all head to school with a little lighter step: some students have already begun counting days (as have some teachers), and as the number dwindles, the pace quickens, as does the pulse and the talking and goofing. Soon, the energy waiting to escape the walls of the school will be almost impossible to contain, especially after next week, when the final round of state testing winds down and everyone finds themselves asking the same question: “Why are we still here if the be-all, end-all tests are complete?” Sure, a few district-mandated tests await students, but the SCPASS, the test that is the benchmark for school effectiveness, administration effectiveness, teacher effectiveness — the test, in other words — will soon be behind us.

My reaction over the years has changed. In the past, I was just trying to survive at this point in the year. Perhaps that was because of a lack of clear and clear-headed goals for students; maybe that was a result of my inexperience and ineffectiveness; possibly that was because I had some exceptionally challenging students. Or perhaps it was all that and more. At any rate, I find myself eager, after a short break, to begin again. A sufficient “short break” in this case would be about three weeks or so, but I’m fortunate that we get about four times that. More time with the kids; more time with coffee; more time for K to sleep in a bit — it’s a blessing for everyone, though K would unhesitatingly add “Especially for you.” And so it is.

Tears at the End

“Why are you smiling, Mr. S?” they ask tearfully, as if to say, “How could you possibly be smiling at this moment? How could you treat our pain so cavalierly? Don’t you have a heart?”

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I’m smiling because it’s good to see such obvious signs of close friendship. I’m smiling because the crying gives me a bit more faith in humanity.