If you teach seniors, you have the “privilege” of not only saying goodbye to teaching them, but to saying goodbye to them as they leave school for the next stage of life. That brings a unique kind of sadness, and sometimes, joy.
There are little moments of sadness along the way, each time they pass through a milestone for the last time. You see the sadness in their eyes when they play their last ballgame, for instance.
The first time the end usually begins to knock is usually around testing. Sometimes prom is around that time too. You realize soon the pattern will be over. The tests you apparently spend all year preparing them for are done. The penultimate social event so many of them hype over all year is over. Now what? In those last weeks, a goodbye creeps around the corner. They have been declaring that they are “done” and checking out all year, but now their protests are full throttle.
Senior skip day brings you an empty (or almost empty) classroom. You sense a hint of what the end will be like.
Baccalaureate hits. That special academic ceremony where you give them the final pre-graduation rewards for all their years of work. You’re almost more proud of them then than at that longer, more tiresome ceremony.
Then comes the string of ceremonies and rituals in between: Senior nights, variety shows, senior picnics, field trips, athletic or academic awards presentations. These non-class moments invite you into a weird space where the same location you see them in every day is now a stretch of moments giving them rewards. These are focused goodbyes aimed departmentally.
Your hard work is done, and so is theirs. Moments of boredom and chaos are punctuated by organized moments of prestige. Your sense of time appropriately becomes muddled now that you no longer have to manage a classroom minute by minute and portions of the institutional experience drop off one by one.
This kid or that has to make up an exam, finish a very late project. Technically, the teaching is not done, nor the learning. In a panic, or at a slow pace, students scramble or scrawl across the building to bring up their final grade. You shake your head.
In that last week with seniors you don’t know who is or isn’t gong to show up on any given day. And so you are surprised by individualized last goodbyes. Some say thank you, some say good riddance. Some bring gifts, some leave pranks. Some say not a word, some try to talk to you for an hour. You’re pulled along for the ride, not knowing how hard it will hit, saying goodbye to each one.
That last day goes one of two way:
- It’s just an “in the building” day. You might not see a single kid. You might see a couple. You’re either cramming last minute classroom shut down or bored to tears because you did that early or will do it later.
- It’s a field day. You’re in charge of some activity and you’re occupied with assisting the students in having a rewarding last day. Don’t be surprised if a lot of seniors don’t even show.
That empty classroom before graduation is one of the saddest. That final bell rings. They are all so happy to no longer be required to be in that building. You are happy too that they are no longer your responsibility. But that room is empty and it was meant to be filled. That hits you hard. No matter how much you look forward to summer. You kick off your shoes with other teachers, but your relief is still diluted by mild sorrow.
Graduation hits. This is when you’re supposed to say goodbye, but you feel like you already have. You watch them arrive and assemble, such a great weight already off their shoulders. They will hate this boring ceremony, many of them. Others will be so thrilled to have finally reached it. You’re happy for them, even the ones who gave you so much trouble. Pick that one kid who got on your nerves the most—you will smile to see that he is done, not just for your sake, but even for his.
The valedictorians give their speeches, and you’re especially proud of those kids. Then they each receive their diploma and your mind recalls one thing about each one that you are either sad to see go, happy to see go, or both. For you, it’s a review. It’s almost a checklist.
Then you mingle. You shake hands. You tell them how proud you are. This is when a few will finally tell you that you’re a good teacher, or that they will actually miss you, or that you made a difference, or that they looked up to you after all. You don’t believe it. Then you do. It all makes sense. It’s almost a rite of passage for them to get on your nerves, and then to turn around and thank you.
You head off out of the auditorium or football field as tired, sweaty kids in colored robes head to their cars. Sigh. Another year done. Another generation you tried your best with and will have to see go.
The goodbye process is just too long, too emotionally exhausting.
You go to that first summer teacher day, sit around a building completely devoid of students, and come to face with the fact that this building is made for bright young minds, and yet its more permanent and fitted occupants are the adults who must handle all their diverse and trying ways, only to let them go. What a job we have.
Then we spot these young adults out in their places of work, or at some gas station or restaurant, or at a football game next fall, and hear of how they’re faring, in college or in the workforce. They turned out all right after all. It’s not goodbye to their lives. It’s hello to the new ones made possible in part to the difference you made along the way.
Good luck in the future. All of you.