Helping to facilitate our eighth grade graduation this year is rather paradoxical: it’s simultaneously the same as always and very different from anything that has come before. It’s always hectic and chaotic when students learn that they can’t participate in graduation practices until the overdue books are returned to the library, the cafeteria bill is paid off, and all missing work is turned in. The range of emotions in our students races up and down minute by minute as they in turn feel excited and scared to leave the only school that many of them have ever attended – that part is the same. All students write graduation speeches; it gets them to reflect on their years here and helps them to prepare mentally and emotionally for the transition. We talk about what high school will be like for them – what are they worried about, what are they excited about, and what do they wonder about. That’s the same, too.
Here’s where it got different for me: I realized during a class discussion about their future that many of the things my students wonder and worry about are the same things I’m thinking about, too, as I also prepare to leave the school I’ve been part of for nineteen years. It made for a dynamic conversation when the kids realized what we had in common. What will it be like not to come to this school anymore? Will I get lost?
How will my friendships change? Am I ready?
Not going to school every day will, at first, likely feel like summer vacation; my husband and I will be traveling for awhile, so it might not be different until the late fall. What will that be like? I have no idea yet! I’m OK with it, though; I have plans to spend time writing, painting, reading, and maybe a business venture. Certainly my version of being lost is different from theirs; my kind of lost would be a floundering in place, spinning my wheels with no place to go. I don’t really think that will happen, but if I don’t have a project or a task in my head, if I have a day with no plan or new idea, I do tend to turn into a slug, and I worry a bit about how I can prevent that from happening. I also know that my close friends will always remain in my life, while I expect that most colleagues will likely fade away eventually, and my life will take on new and different challenges that I don’t yet know about. Am I ready? I guess I’ll soon find out! It doesn’t matter if I’m ready at this point — it’s happening, just like it is for the eighth graders, whether they are ready or not.
And so, this year’s graduation has taken on a certain personal symbolism for me. As I send off this last group of fledglings, I, too, will fly away from the nest. I think I will find some poetry to write in there somewhere, but not yet. It’s still too new.
I have one more surprise to share with you, dear readers; this one was embedded in an ordinary day. Friday was the last day of classes for the eighth graders; we talked about speeches, did a fun activity, cleaned out saved writing and binders, and then I spontaneously stopped their conversations with a question: “OK, everyone, you’ve been telling me how much you’ve loved having me as a teacher and how great it’s been and how much you’re going to miss me. And that’s all wonderful, but now I need you to put your money where your mouth is. I want to know what’s the most important thing you’ve learned from me?”
I have no idea what I expected to hear – when adolescents are in a hyper state of excitement it’s practically impossible to get them to think. But some students had some things to say that were profound. I wish I had thought to make a list of their answers, because I know I’ve forgotten some of them, but here is a representation as best I can recall:
- I learned how to handle and use constructive criticism.
- I learned that when I’m writing something and I get stuck, I can find ways to get past it and keep writing.
- I learned to love poetry.
- I learned that there are lots of different kinds of poetry.
- I’ve learned that I can write good poems.
- I learned that I love to write.
- I learned about my personality type and now I know why I do some of the things that I do.
- I learned to write from different points of view.
- I learned that when I get an idea of what I want to write about, I can say it in different ways.
- I learned that I can be a pretty good writer.
- I learned that I’m good at expressing my own voice.
- I’ve learned that I can say things in fewer words.
These comments gave me goose bumps. I wish that I had starting asking that question years ago so I could have kept a collection of the responses. Knowing what kids take with them when they leave my classroom is so meaningful, and satisfying. Their words will stay with me, just as I hope that what they learned will stay with them.
I have always loved what William Butler Yeats said: “Education is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail.” I think my students have told me that there may be some fires burning for them. Life is good.