I’d never seen so many kids so sad to see summer break begin. “Why are they all crying,” I heard one pre-K teacher whisper. I was leaving my school — I’m moving to Milwaukee — and I made the mistake of tearing up. Soon after, just about every student I had was in tears too. One was noticeably shaking under my arm as we posed for a goodbye photo.
I don’t tell this quick tale to congratulate myself. It’s an experience that every student and teacher has had, though perhaps not so viscerally. I remember my final goodbyes to Mr. Aslakson and Coach Blaha. Every teacher that I know has students that they still miss. Many tell me that they hate the final days of school for this very reason.
My last day this year is certainly in my top-five least favorite days that I’ve ever taught. After cleaning up my bookshelves and wiping down desks, my students and I just milled around my classroom chatting. It was pleasant — painfully so. I smiled, laughed, joked, and watched the clock tick ever closer to dismissal. I had to say goodbye to these students, and I didn’t want to.
Poe loves to include clocks in his stories — an ebony grandfather clock gonging to remind a group of revelers about their inevitable death by pestilence or a clock on the wall ticking while a murderer ponders his violent act. We all live on a clock and teachers teach on a clock.
Grief is a normal part of the life of a teacher. As the hours and minutes tick by, we spend our time getting to know children: laughing with them; teaching them; sharing our passion for our content with them; playing at recess with them; and even crying with them. And then our time runs out, the year ends, they move on, and we get a new crop of students in September to begin it all again.
And it works in reverse too. Students shuffle into the rooms of comparative strangers, unsure if this adult will be boring, cool, incompetent, harsh, helpful, creepy, funny, or something else entirely. In some cases, that teacher becomes one of their trusted mentors, the name that they’ll remember for years after because they finally helped quadratic equations make sense or provided a listening ear precisely when they needed it. And then the summer comes around and they have to say goodbye.
Normally, as a part-time polemicist, I need a punchy conclusion or controversial point to make in this sort of article. I’ve been wrestling with that for a few days and haven’t written this before now because of it. Is this a condemnation of our bureaucratized system? Children need trusted mentors but our system prevents kids and adults from developing long-term trusting relationships, opting to shuffle them along in arbitrarily chosen increments of time? Is it a pitch for homeschooling and microschools? Kids, parents, and a closely-knit community all working together over a long period of time?
Maybe…. Or maybe not.
A poem that I teach to all of my students is “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost. “Dawn goes down to day,” he writes in the penultimate line. All good things fade. Even our moments of greatest bliss, when exuberant laughter wipes our mind of worry, are fleeting.
But Frost’s poem isn’t pure nihilism and “meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” We cannot forget that before dawn turns to day, there was a beautiful sunrise. Before gold tarnishes, it glistens. We can delight in the almost Edenic moments that we do have even if they eventually turn to grief.
A song that I love builds on this point. I played it that last day. “Everything goes away” the artist invokes several times throughout but the title, “Always Gold,” borrows from and builds upon Frost’s. Even as our dawns subside, they’re still gold to us.
I hate saying goodbye to students but I remember rolling my chair around my desk to watch Romeo and Juliet next to the kids with my feet up on a desk. I remember the doodles that appeared on my board. I remember chatting with a young man about how insecure he felt playing football as the smallest boy at recess. I remember huddling up and praying with students on the last day, watching tears drop onto the floor in a circle. That might be my favorite moment I’ve ever had as a teacher, and it occurred on one of my least favorite days. These moments will always be gold.
Maybe that brings me to the conclusion: a paean to the teaching profession, an honorable and selfless affair. Kids need something like 4 to 7 trusted adults in their lives to teach them, correct them, guide them, and love them. Teachers can fill that role.
It’s at times a daunting responsibility. Young minds — both individual kids and more abstractly the next generation — trust us. They look to us for guidance, for wisdom, and for direction. We can lead them to academic success and virtuous action or do real harm if we’re not careful, passing on our vices and biases.
But every year, summer comes around and we have to end that mentorship. As teachers, we can look back fondly upon those relationships that we built but more students await, and no students can stay. It’s a selfless act as we give of ourselves for a year or two or three and then the students move on. And if we’re lucky — if any of my students are reading this, listen up one last time — they’ll reach out and say hello some day in the future.