When Teachers Graduate

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I retired from teaching three years ago in June of 2012.  For those of you new to this blog or still refusing to memorize every pertinent detail about my life, I taught language arts for eight years at Peacock Junior High School in Itasca and twenty-five years of English at Hinsdale South High School in nice-place-to-live Darien.  So why would I be writing about the end of my teaching career three years after it officially ended?  Well, since you brought it up… (Yes, it is completely lame and manipulative to ask a rhetorical question in an essay and then to pretend that your poor, guileless readers actually wanted you to answer it in a couple thousand words.)

Regardless of my tawdry compositional devices, on May 29, I attended the graduation ceremony at Hinsdale South where the last students who were in my freshman honors classes back in 2012 crossed the stage to receive their diplomas.  Or more accurately, they received empty envelopes and had to go back to the school’s cafeteria after the ceremony was over to get their real diplomas.  Yes, the powers-that-be want no shenanigans while the almost-graduates are listening to speeches, waiting for their turn to hear their name announced, praying that they don’t trip walking up the stairs of the stage, and being transformed without feeling the slightest bit different after the big moment on the way back to their seats into which they dutifully filed.

And the Hornet Class of ’15 did themselves proud.  The student speeches were both excellent (naturally, the young lady and gentleman who spoke were ex-students of mine), and the adult speeches were good (which is code for “short”).  The choir and band were hard to hear near the top of the bleachers where I was seated, but I’m sure they did a wonderful job as well.  The students were immaculately behaved—there was nothing remotely inappropriate done by anyone.  Even the obligatory parental noise—which always increases as the first few tentative whoops don’t result in any divine retribution which emboldens relatives of the more alphabetically challenged to get louder as the names progress—was well within reasonable boundaries.  As I always used to remind my seniors when we would near graduation, this ceremony is for parents (first and foremost) and relatives; students’ more wild and exciting celebrations will take place in smaller venues with fewer participants.  And the ceremony was pitch-perfect in that regard.  It was, like the town in which it took place advertises, nice.

As to my attendance, unlike many jobs, teachers leave work products behind when they retire, at least for a while.  If you toil in public education, students you taught will still be in school until they graduate.  So that’s why I felt compelled to attend this graduation ceremony, despite not having taught for three years.  My kids were still part of the school where I worked; therefore, my job wasn’t completely done.  It is an odd reaction, I guess, but it certainly felt that way to me.  I understand that I was only one of a couple dozen teachers in whose classrooms these fine young scholars had labored, but I’ve always taken that 1/24th responsibility seriously.  (That even distribution of influence can be misleading since every once in a while, a teacher or two will constitute a much larger fraction.  Most students find at least one teacher who has a disproportionate effect on them on their way through the public school systems I have known, both as a teacher and a parent whose first daughter is one year away from being done with her public education.)  Clearly, my current role had nothing but symbolic meaning since I hadn’t been in a classroom as a teacher in three years and had contributed nothing to their educational progress since 2012.  I hadn’t even substituted or tutored at Hinsdale South or been connected to the school in any way except for all the teachers I had worked with—some for over twenty years.  But everybody leaves co-workers behind when moving on after a job; students are a totally different story from co-workers.

Teachers at a high school interact with students as the person in charge every day in fifty-minute segments for over nine months.  Every day is completely different from the last with unique, live, largely improvised one-act plays that take place in your classroom five times a day.  Some days, your interaction will be short and sweet—“Sit down, be quiet, and we can start the essay test.  You have until the end of the period to answer the question.  Good luck, and don’t forget to have your Brave New World books for class tomorrow.”  Yet even in that seemingly insignificant-contact period there is a lot going on.  Teachers can learn much from watching students approach the start of a test, how they react as the teacher strolls around the room to monitor progress, and even the way they turn in the tests when they are done.  Some approach the teacher’s desk with confidence and a sense of accomplishment, some refuse to make eye contact, some apologize for how horrible their results will be, some glare at the source of their suffering, some will try to hide their papers by putting them on the bottom of the pile, and many will sub-consciously show their defiance for the whole process of being evaluated by making a mess of the stack of tests when they turn theirs in.  So even on these seemingly minimal-interaction days, we teachers are learning a great deal about our kids.

That possessiveness can also infect a teacher’s colleagues.  One of mine would single out at least one or two of my students each year so she could hector me about their behavior in her class.  “Your buddy didn’t turn in his homework today,” would be a typical comment she would make, as if my year with this kid had somehow made me responsible for everything he did for the rest of his life.  Despite realizing how idiotic this was, I never could escape a twinge of defensiveness when she would bring up my ex-students’ dereliction of duty; that 1/24th responsibility for their education would kick in and I would wish that I had done something more to ensure that he would always turn in his assignments.  I would also want to punch this lady in the face for her trying to shift her 1/24th of responsibility to me.

Every last student impacts you to some degree.  Some definitely leave larger dents on your psyche than others, and many affect you positively forever.  Good or bad, though, those kids in your classes—be it the same 22 all year in first grade or 125+ in five bunches of 25 for one class period each day over the course of a semester in high school—occupy huge chunks of your attention, worry, joy, and frustration.  You do tend to take the problems and pains home with you more frequently and intensely than the positive stuff, but those negatives fade sooner or later; and the good memories tend to stay submerged in your mind forever only to ambush you at the strangest times.

You also become aware of your own significance to them the longer you teach.  Sure, you get a few who come back to visit you while you’re still teaching, but that tends to be a quick trip down memory lane while you try not to be rude because you have so much other work to do, struggling to remember their name.  (When you come back to visit your teachers, children, always introduce yourself with who you are right off the bat, okay?  I found that I could dredge up most of my visiting ex-students’ names over the course of a ten-minute conversation, but there was often that awkward few moments before the name would dawn on me.  Remember, my darlings, your appearance can change radically in just a few years, so cut your ex-teachers some slack.)  It would also be difficult to know how long to let the conversation drag on.  But their wanting to check in with you after they leave isn’t what I’m talking about.

No, it’s odd things that truly demonstrate how important teachers were to their kids:  There’s the one who tells you three years later that one question you asked him when he was a freshman altered his whole high school experience.  And then a quiet one tells your daughter that you were the inspiration for her choice to major in English.  Or my current favorite example happened two months ago when I attended the Hinsdale South Variety Show with my daughter.  One of my ex-students was all over the stage, mostly playing guitar, but also doing a magic act where he solicited volunteers from the audience.  There were plenty willing to participate, but he came off the stage into the audience to extend me a special invitation to join in.  (It was a card trick, so no, he didn’t try to saw me in half or throw knives at me.)  And if that weren’t cool enough, after the show, he came out and wanted to be sure that I wasn’t mad about his singling me out.  I mean, there it was, almost three years since I’d had any official authority over him and he still cared about my approving of what he does.  His relief and happiness when I told him that I was thrilled to be so honored was touching, even to someone as sarcastic as me.  How can you not be awed and humbled by having that kind of influence on a great kid?

So finishing your job by seeing the last ones who became a part of you and to whom you made a difference graduate is an important thing.  I will always have ties to Hinsdale South, both through my ex-colleagues and my twenty-five years of teaching there.  But as of May 29, the thousands of kids I taught from 1979 through 2012 have all graduated from (or dropped out of) public education.  I will never fully know what their time with me meant to them or how being in my class will affect their lives, but I will be forever grateful for being allowed to share some time with them.  And their impact on me will be something that will stay with me forever.  Thanks to each and every one of you; now go make the world a better place.

“Snowflake Schools” will be taking most of the summer off, but will resume more frequent postings at the beginning of the school year in late August.  For much more on how schools could improve, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, excerpts of which can be found at http://www.snowflake-schools.com/snowflake-schools-the-book.html.

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