Last days at any job are weird. You sit around all day asking yourself, “What should I be doing?” You could be a good employee and diligently perform the duties of your job up until the very last minute of your last shift, but who would you be kidding? You have no real investment in it, so why?
Last days for teachers are, usually, not so fraught with ambivalence and indecision. Most last days for teachers involve administering and grading final exams, or various other administrative tasks that must be handled prior to leaving. Even still, there is that one last-day wild card for school teachers–students.
My last day of school at my most recent district was set up to be fairly easy. The exams for that day were 4th period, my conference period, and 5th period, my seniors in Business English who’d taken their exams the week before. I had all of my exams graded, the grades posted and verified. All of my technology had been turned in; my 75-cent lunch room charge (I bought a Diet Coke on “credit” one day) had been paid; all of my personal belongings had been boxed up. All I had to do was wait for the bell to ring, turn in my keys, and I was done.
But, the wild card…
My students knew I wasn’t coming back next year, but they’re high school students, so most of them wouldn’t have had me on their schedule again anyway. Unbeknownst to me, however, some of them were disappointed that I wouldn’t be a face they saw everyday as they walked the halls.
Several students stopped by throughout the day to say their good-byes. They’d already asked if they could connect with me on social media since I wouldn’t be their teacher anymore, and I’d told them yes, with the warning that they’d likely be rather un-enthralled by my posts. A few of them brought me gifts…mostly Nacho Cheese Doritos, Diet Cokes, and Snickers–they knew those were my favorites.
But, I was surprised at the reactions of a few students who, until that day, I’d not seen much from in the way of acknowledging some appreciation for my efforts during the year. One girl, with whom I’d actually had a few minor “run in’s” over tardies and other discipline issues, came to me with tears in her eyes.
“Thank you,” she said, her chin quivering slightly, “for putting up with me this year. I know I wasn’t always the easiest to deal with, but I really did love your class.”
A young man who was in my largest and rowdiest class said, “I never have liked English very much, but you made it fun.”
Still another said, “Mr. Walker, I’m going to miss you!” And wrapped her arms around my neck before I could reply.
Perhaps the most moving reaction of all came in the form of a Facebook message the morning after the last day of school. It was from a good student who always did well in my class, but one who didn’t usually say much, which is part of the reason I was so surprised to hear from him. His message read, in part:
I’m not sure if it is appropriate to message you. But I am going to anyways. I would like to thank you for being, to me, one of the greatest English teachers I have ever had. Your great amount of humor with the class was what us as students need to be comfortable…
…There may have been days where I just didn’t want to go to English class because I felt like I did not belong with the other academically smart students. But you helped me feel like I belonged and helped me realize that I’m just as smart as the other kids. It is hard for a teacher to connect with their students. But you made it seem so easy.
To say I was bowled over would be a historically big understatement. I had no idea, until the moment I read that, that he felt that way. But, I’m so grateful that something I did, or something I said (I have no idea what), made him feel like he belonged.
He did belong. He does belong. They all belong!
I’ve learned in my very short time as an educator that we don’t always get to know the impact we have on our students. Oh, to be sure, we see progress in whatever subject matter we teach, but it’s not often at all that we learn the bigger things; the more important things; the things that keep us coming back year after year despite the many reasons not to.
I suppose I’m counting myself as one of the lucky ones this year. My last day turned out to be the day I got to see at least a little peek into those important things. More importantly for me, however, it renewed my commitment to the belief that we are meant to educate the whole person, not just the reader, the writer, the mathematician, the scientist, etc. The responsibility we have as educators is enormous because, though we may not always know it, for many of our students, we hold their very BELONGING in our hands.
God help me to never, ever forget that!