With retirement looming ahead, there are some things I’m definitely sad about leaving behind. The biggest is that I won’t have a bunch of middle school kids in my life: the ones who drive me crazy, the ones who touch my heart, the ones who make me think, and the goofy ones at whom I just plain hafta laugh. I cannot yet imagine how it will feel not to have a classroom filled with young faces, and I have a movie of sorts running through my mind of the classrooms of past years, complete with amazing kids and special moments.
I know that I have taught over 1,000 students; this number is certainly smaller than it would be if I had worked in a city or a larger district, but in our small community (approximately 4,000 people), it represents nearly every child who attended our school in the eighth grade.
I can’t even pretend to say that I remember every student I’ve ever known, but I do like to think that I have loved them all and remember most. All those faces, all those creative assignments. I can still associate some students and the work they produced: a poem they wrote, the hero they chose for their Heroes and Virtues project, or their research paper topic, or the creative project they made for the Vietnam unit. All those faces have come together in my mind to form a visual montage of images that work together and tell the story of my career.
Here’s a metaphorical description of it.
Each of my former students has added one square to a very large quilt. These squares form a beautiful design; at first it looks crazy and random, but as I look more closely I can see a definite pattern. They are not necessarily arranged chronologically, although there is a certain sense of that.
Some squares are arranged in family groups, with siblings together even when there are many years between them; I feel a particular sense of “knowing” with students when I also have known their siblings, and I love their differences because that’s the way it should be — that birth order piece makes every child’s experience different even within the same general environment. Perhaps I find comfort in already knowing their parents, or already knowing about events or stories that older sibs might have shared with me. The largest family I’ve known had seven children; I knew the oldest only as a classmate of my oldest son, but I taught all the others. When I had the youngest one, he wrote a descriptive essay about his brothers, naming them and identifying how each one of them was a good brother for a different reason. It brought tears to my eyes because I had known them all. I truly understood how their unique traits made each one a supportive big brother.
Other squares in my quilt are grouped together by particular talents. I’ve known some truly gifted writers, poets, artists, musicians, and actors. Sometimes those students have taken my breath away when they have demonstrated that creativity in a reading response assignment or project work. Occasionally I’ve learned about how those talents become the basis of career choices as my alumni have grown into adults, and I like to think that maybe my work to foster that creativity might have helped a little, might have been one more nudge in the right direction. I have been wowed when I attend the local high school’s annual Senior Project Expo every spring, and I see that a student has continued to follow their passion, like the musical young man last year who wrote a piano sonata.
There is a section on my quilt that is bounded by black; these are the students who have passed away. I have attended the funerals for these nine people, all of them much too young to die. Cancer and other aggressive and terrible illness, war, suicide, accidents, and fire. Each one a tragic story unto itself. Each one leaving undone work that the world will never know. I will never forget them.
Other students have become my good friends, and my relationships with them have grown from teen/adult to adult/adult. They know how much I love them; what they might not know is how much they have taught me about what is important about my work.
I think most of my former students will forget me long before I forget them, but that’s OK. I have their faces sewn into my metaphorical quilt. Oh, how I love this quilt.