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Elegy for a School Year

The end of the year brings emotional reflection



I ended another year of teaching recently. I sat through the graduation ceremony on the football field in my own college-graduation robes, cringing and laughing as the senior class presidency stumbled through commencement speeches both hopeful and hopelessly naïve. These are the best years of our lives, but the best is yet to come.

I remembered my own high school graduation, almost exactly 10 years earlier, and my false eagerness to leave the stability of bells telling me where to go and when to leave. Ten years later, that need for stability still lingers. Like many overly sensitive introverts, I feel a little too deeply sometimes, so I compensate by keeping a tight rein on the feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality that come so painlessly to some. I joke with my students and peers that I hate the end of the school year. “Too many feelings!” I complain while signing yearbooks and posing for photos.

But as I watched my students cross the stage to receive their diplomas, I indulged in a little nostalgia and wondered about my 17-year-old self. How would she feel, meeting me at 27? I hope she would be proud. I hope I measure up, at least a little, to the equally hopeless and hopelessly naïve speeches I heard in 2004.

This school year was difficult. I wrote a piece for City Weekly about some of my students. They didn’t like me very much sometimes. Despite working harder than ever, I often felt discouraged and incompetent. My jokes fell flat. The carefully planned lessons designed to encourage engagement and discussion resulted in blank stares. I fought for every positive relationship I developed with my students.

On the last day of school, I received some really kind and beautiful notes from some of my graduating students. I’m grateful for every note, card and drawing students give me, but this year the notes felt especially sincere and thoughtful. Reading their letters, I realized that despite my attempts to always keep my emotions carefully controlled, I truly learned to love and appreciate this group of kids—even the difficult ones. Especially the difficult ones.

After graduation, a parent grabbed my arm and thanked me for teaching her son. She told me I gave her hope that her son would be successful in the adult world, and thanked me for noticing a quiet but passionate student who is overlooked in public education.

In those moments, I feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of my job. Sometimes I compare teaching to treading open water. You kick and paddle and try not to drown for 180 days. But this year, for a few moments on the last days of the year, I managed to swim to shore. I looked back on the past year and realized I wasn’t treading water; I was swimming across oceans. More importantly, I managed to pull a few students along with me. We made it. It really was the best days of our lives, and the best really is yet to come.

If I met my 17-year-old self today, I suspect she’d be proud of the tangible things I’ve accomplished since the bells stopped telling me where to go. I think she’d be proud of my advanced degree. She’d be impressed with my job and my comfortable home. But if I met her, I’d tell her that of all my accomplishments, I’m most proud of my ability to love a little deeper and better than I loved in high school. After all, what skill is more necessary to survival than loving the people around us? Especially the difficult people, especially the quiet but passionate people who sometimes go overlooked in a loud and busy world? I spend my days teaching teenagers about literature and history, and as sentimental and clichéd as it may sound, my teenagers teach me about love. I know, I know. “Too many feelings!”

In Theodore Roethke’s poem “Elegy for Jane,” the narrator describes the pain of losing a beloved student in a tragic accident. He compares Jane to nature: “A wren, happy, tail into the wind/ Her song trembling the twigs and small branches/ The shade sang with her.” There’s a gentle reminder that his love for Jane is natural and honest, as innocent as a wren flying through the sky. (An important reminder in our world, where it seems like every damned year a teacher does something inappropriate with a student. Roethke’s narrator is a devoted teacher, not a predator.) Roethke closes his poem mourning not only the death of his student, but fearing that he doesn’t deserve to love her at all: “I, with no rights in this matter,/ Neither father nor lover.”

His closing lines point out an uncomfortable truth: We often deny ourselves the opportunity to love people unless they are romantically or biologically linked to us, and it often stunts our growth toward emotionally healthy adulthood.

I think that is why those letters and the conversation with a parent meant so much to me this year. Those words are evidence that the hard work I put into teaching my students meant something bigger than an understanding of Steinbeck or Fitzgerald. Maybe, just maybe, as my students walked across the stage and into the adult word, they entered knowing how to love a little bit better than I did at age 17. I, with no rights in this matter, neither mother nor lover.