The hardest day of the school year for me was always the day students left my classroom and headed off into the summer and the rest of their lives. I’m certain that this is a sentiment I share with every dedicated, committed teacher I’ve ever known. After spending all your working hours – and some of the sleeping ones too – planning, thinking and worrying about this community of learners, it would be inhuman not to grieve over their departure.
I’ve written before about one of my favorite teacher movies, a French film called To Be and To Have (Etre et Avoir) featuring a teacher in a rural school in France in his penultimate year before retirement. It contains a scene at the end which makes me teary every time I think about it. We see him on the front steps of his little school waving goodbye to his young charges as they disappear across the fields that surround the school. At least that’s the way I remember it. I’m not sure if we actually see his tears, but we definitely feel them, as we recognize that he is pondering not only the end of the school year but the impending end of his teaching career.
My way of dealing with this dreaded separation is to create a bubble of denial against the threat of separation and loss by making as many of my former students as possible an ongoing part of my life. Facebook has made that process easier, but my efforts predate that, stretching all the way back to 1973 when I directed the teacher education program at Antioch New England. Several of my students remain a part of my life almost fifty years later. In 1982, I began a thirteen year stretch of teaching in Houston, and so many of those amazing students are still part of my life three or four decades later.
What triggered my thinking about these enduring relationships was a visit from Tiffany yesterday. She and her family are here from Houston and we had lunch with her and Audrey, her younger daughter who is just about the age her mother was when she was my student. I’ve followed Tiffany through high school, her time at Georgetown, her graduate school years in Manchester, England, her wedding, which my wife and I attended, the birth of her children and her very successful professional life. Then there’s Tom, who just wrote today that several of his family members were victims of the Surfside condo collapse. He lives in Arizona now and has devoted himself to hiking every known trail in his adopted state. We’ve also had some anguished exchanges about the seemingly unbridgeable political differences in his family. We’re actually closer now than we were when he was my student.
Warinda was a gift from the moment she appeared in my classroom in the early 80s. I knew from the start that she was destined to be a writer and she’s still writing what I’m confident will be an epic novel based on her own family’s history in rural Louisiana. Here too we’ve stayed connected through high school, college and her graduate writing program. And chalk up another wedding where, through an odd set of circumstances, we were the only witnesses. Several years ago, Warinda and two other wonderful former students of mine, Stephanie and Katie, invited us for our own private reunion in Austin where all of them have landed. Their bewildered adolescent children wondered at this bizarre event where their mothers were “getting together with your middle school English teacher? Who does that?” Indeed.
Perhaps the most tragic of my enduring relationships was with Steve. As a seventh grader, he was injured in the school bus crash that killed one of his classmates. That trauma drew us closer and again we stayed close through high school and into college where he courageously came out at a time and in a place where this was a decision not lightly made. Steve dreamed of being a writer, but never got closer to the brass ring than working as a technical writer. The pinnacle of that career path was being hired by Microsoft where he was diagnosed almost immediately on arrival with Stage Four lung cancer. This time it was a funeral, not a wedding.
And I can’t forget Marcus, my Houston student in four different grades of middle school and high school. He calls me regularly to report on the latest developments in his career which evolved slowly but has now exploded. He has published a novel, made a movie and become the writer/director of several high visibility TV shows like Empire and LAW and ORDER. Two years ago, he invited me and Rosellen to the set of Empire when they were shooting one of his episodes. I am grateful that our relationship has survived the challenges of age, race and geography.
The opening of the Urban Teacher Education Program (UTEP) in 2003 marked the beginning of a new phase in what I think I’ll call my flypaper approach to life. I watched eleven cohorts of passionate and dedicated young teachers parade by and since my retirement I’ve tried to stay in touch with as many of them as possible. If they remained in Chicago, I was likely to show up in their classrooms at some point. For a few, those visits turned into regularly scheduled visits during which I tried to serve as a thought partner to my alums. The prize winner in this category is Alex who has made regular appearances in my postings as I’ve recounted our work together for almost a decade. Most recently, I’ve visited remotely her LA classroom weekly where I got to watch and learn from her ability to navigate across multiple screens while keeping parents posted on the level of participation of their children. She will be visiting Chicago next week, an opportunity for a catch-up lunch as our relationship continues to unfold. She will be followed by Chad, also transplanted to LA several years ago, who will also join me for lunch. With my encouragement, he made a brave move this year from a very comfortable job in a private school – small classes and light teaching load – to an urban middle school not blessed with either of those advantages, where he now feels closer to his vision of teaching as a platform for equity and social justice.
I’ve just chosen a few examples of the way I’ve clung to my relationships with former students who have come to constitute an important part of the fabric of my life, along with family and friends. I can add to this fly paper existence my teaching colleagues in the two schools which I served as principal. The first was in New Hampshire where I continued to meet with the former staff every summer for several decades after I had left until there were not enough of us left standing to constitute a quorum. The second here in Chicago is ongoing. I am in regular touch with almost the entire early staff of the school and once the fog of the pandemic lifts, I hope to return to real, rather than virtual, encounters with them.
So, what to make of all this? Our life’s parade marches past at an ever-quickening pace which I try to slow by clinging to the uniforms of the marchers to prevent them from disappearing down the street so quickly. As someone who has preached a one-note sermon on the importance of relationships, I’m committed to making them more than ephemeral events. All these lives that I have touched have in turn left their stamp on me. Our stories are braided. I would be a shadow without them.
Now, I must stop because I’m having lunch with Eliza, a former UTEP student who now oversees …..