“Someday, in the mist of time,
When they ask me if I knew you,
I’d smile and say you were a friend of mine.
And the sadness will be lifted from my eyes.
Oh, when I’m old and wise.”
–“Old and Wise,” The Alan Parsons Project
If you want to feel life at its fullest, attend a high school graduation. Look into graduates’ beaming faces and you’ll see it—their eyes glow like stars. Youth at its pinnacle. Adulthood on its first day. Freedom personified.
For a few hours, the adults called to witness this passage feel what it’s like to be young again. We remember. But we are only visitors now. We passed this way once, but we can’t stay long. We feel time’s march and our place in it. No matter how much we influenced these golden children, we have moved into the past now. Just a few paragraphs in their stories. Chapter One.
And life goes on.
It’s hard to explain sometimes why anyone chooses to teach. Teaching is challenging work. It’s often thankless. Beset on all sides by condescending people who infantilize us and tell us how to do our jobs. Sisyphean paperwork and endless meetings. Why would anyone endure it?
“I like working with young people.”
“ I believe in the power of education.”
–Shadows of the truth, interview platitudes that fail to capture the intensity of our relationships with students. You want to know why we teach? We look at the sun without blindness and feel its warmth. We hold possibility in our hands. We see hope manifest. Year after year, we see life reborn. Teachers are keepers of the flame. The children stand as life’s promise. We will go on.
Teaching is touching immortality.
My students make me feel alive and through them, I live forever.
As this school year ends, I feel the weight of this pact more than most years. My fifth graders are leaving our building for middle school next year. I am leaving, too. Packing my classroom, passing back notebooks, clearing the walls. When Room 211 empties this Friday and the children and I leave it forever, I wonder what remains. Will my students remember what they’ve learned? Will they remember our classroom family? Will they remember the books we read? Most of all, will they remember how much I loved them?
While my professional training prepared me for many things—designing lessons, implementing best practices, working with other teachers—it never prepared me for the fierce, territorial love and concern I feel for my students. These children—brilliant, loving, flawed, hurting, and needy—come into my classroom every year.
My family knows my students’ names and their stories both heartwarming and tragic, I worry about my students long after they leave me, and my life becomes entwined with theirs—for one school year at least—often longer. As much as I hope to change children’s lives, my relationships with students transform me. They are forever mine, and I am forever, their teacher.
On their worst day. On my worst day. Until my last day on Earth, I will love them all. That’s my promise.
Twenty years down the road, what else could they take away from my class that matters more?
I spent the evening attending a graduation party for one of my former 6th graders, Daniella. Flitting around the party, laughing with friends, hugging relatives, dutifully talking with all of her guests, Daniella was bubbly and brilliant. She is glad that high school is over. She is ready for her next life.
Chatting with several former students at the party, I asked each one, “Where are you going? What are you going to do?”
“University of Texas. Biology.”
“Oklahoma Baptist. Art, and I’m going to swim for them.”
“Full Sail. Media Communications.”
“Midwestern State. Undecided.”
“Two year mission in Mexico.”
They all had an answer, but I could see it in their eyes. They don’t know. They don’t know where they’re going. They don’t know what they are going to do. Their eyes shine a little too brightly. There’s fear underneath it. An unanswered question, “What’s next?”
I don’t have an answer for them. I wish I did. All I have is the promise I made to them years ago. I love you, my bright stars. I believe in you. I always have. I always will.
Life goes on.
The most important lessons ever learned.