The Last Day: How My Students Taught Me the Most Important Lesson of the Year

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 kids and me! Well…the top of my bald head, mostly!!

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.

A anonymous note I found tacked to the bulletin board behind my desk a few days before school was out this year.

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!

My Hometown Series #10–The Little Library That Could

About three or four days after my family moved from Irving to Grand Saline, my great-great aunt loaded me and my sister up in her 1960-something mustard-colored Ford Fairlane and took us downtown to the Grand Saline Public Library to get library cards and check out some books to read. By late June, when we moved, there wasn’t a lot for kids to do in Grand Saline, especially new kids who didn’t know anyone yet. Summer baseball was already well underway, or maybe even over by then, and it was still a couple of weeks before we’d attend Vacation Bible School at the First Baptist Church. So, having been a teacher for over 50 years, she thought it was a good idea for us to get books so that we’d have something constructive to do. That was just fine with me. I loved to read, and I loved going to the library when we lived in Irving.

I’ll never forget my first sight of the little depot library. It looked so small. I was used to the Irving Public Library, a large, sprawling brick building with a huge circulation desk in the middle where three ladies sat checking in and out books, and many rooms full of books, magazines, microfilm readers, tape players, and even televisions. This little library in my new hometown was something quite different. As we walked in the front door, there was a small wooden desk just to the left where just one lady sat with a stack of books next to her on a cart. She smiled and greeted us as we walked in. My aunt, who greeted her by name, introduced me and my sister and told her we had just moved to Grand Saline, and that we needed library cards. The librarian carefully filled them out by hand—she didn’t have a typewriter like the ladies in Irving did, and placed them in a small box on her desk. We didn’t get copies—she would write on them whenever we came in. After the administrative work was done, we were off to find books.

There are so many memories of that day that I still carry with me—the way the floor creaked when I stepped in certain places, just like the one in W&W Dept. Store; the smell in the air of all of those wonderful books in such a small room; the almost churchlike silence—at least until the trains came by. I don’t know how long we were there that first day, but I do remember that while we were there, two trains came roaring past, literally shaking the floor. I was startled by the first one, and asked my aunt what the noise was. That’s when she told me the story that the library started out as a train depot where trains would stop to drop off and pick up cargo and passengers. I was fascinated, and when the second one came past, I made sure to run to the front door and look out to watch it. After a while, we gathered up our books and took them to the lady at the tiny desk. She carefully filled out our cards and stamped the books. My aunt thanked her and she told us that she hoped we’d be back soon. We were—many times.

There were numerous visits to the little depot library during the first few summers we lived in Grand Saline. There were many books checked out, and even an audio tape or two after I received a tape player and recorder for Christmas one year. Once I entered high school and started focusing on music more, I didn’t go as often, but would still visit once in a while to check out a book or two. For me, knowing the library was there always meant there would be something to do, somewhere to “go,” and some new characters to meet in the pages of books. I’m sure there are many more who felt the same way, and many who still do.

Over the years, that little depot library has become so much more than just a place to check out books. By the time I was in middle school, the back rooms had been renovated and opened to the public for events. I attended at least two dances there. We celebrated my great-aunt’s 90th birthday there, as well. And, later, my high school graduation party was there, as well as my sister’s wedding reception. It was also the location of the first wedding I ever played piano for. Now days that room is used for a wide variety of family, organizational, and community events. Especially noteworthy are the number of activities for local kids which the library sponsors there each summer. The library is an active and vibrant place to be.

But, it’s not only the many fun activities for local kids (and adults) that make the Grand Saline Public Library such an enormously important part of the community. For many folks in the surrounding areas, it is, quite literally, their access to the world. Computers with high speed internet service offer the ability for many of our neighbors who do not have internet access in their homes to conduct business, search for employment, or communicate with friends and loved ones far away whom they might otherwise lose touch with. Public Wi-Fi access allows for work to be done even if all of the computers are in use. The library also offers a number of other resources to members of the community who are in need.

Recently, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Grand Saline Public Library, I shared a picture of Governor Abbott’s proclamation with a good friend who has been both a university librarian, and director of libraries for a large private school in Dallas. He was simply amazed that a town the size of Grand Saline still has a public library that is so active after so many years. He told me that in a day when so many towns and even large cities are shuttering their libraries due to lack of funding, the fact that ours is still open is truly remarkable. He said it was a credit to the librarian and the volunteers who have worked so hard to make that possible.

I can’t imagine my childhood without the library. It would certainly have been very different and most likely not nearly as fun. I’m happy to know that kids today get the same opportunity to experience it that I did so many years ago. But now, due to a series of unfortunate events—a “perfect storm” as one person described it—the little depot library is facing an uncertain future. Some funding that was expected won’t come this year, and that means that paying bills, purchasing books, performing necessary maintenance, and even some summer programs might not be possible. In a worst case scenario, this could leave many of our friends and neighbors without the resources they’ve come to count on from the library. That’s why, as much as this story is about my fond childhood memories of the little depot library, it is also a plea to those of you reading for help. Over the years, Grand Saline has faced many hardships and hard times, but each time pronouncements came that the town was “dead” or “dying,” folks stepped up and stepped in to make good things happen; to be sure that she just keeps chugging along like those trains that fly past the library every day.

When I was a very little boy, I had a copy of the book The Little Engine That Could, by Watty Piper. I’m sure you remember the story. A little train carrying a heavy load was faced with the daunting task of pulling that load up a steep hill. As folks looked on, doubtful that the train would make it, the little engine just kept saying to himself, “I think I can. I think I can.” Eventually, to the cheers of everyone watching, the engine topped the hill and sailed down the other side, exclaiming, “I knew I could. I knew I could.” Our little depot library is a lot like that little engine in the book. It has a steep hill to climb and a heavy load to carry. But, I’m confident that in the capable hands of our librarian, Kelly Bryant, and the many volunteers and Friends of the Library; and with the help of our generous and determined community, that little depot library will make the trip just fine.

A Go Fund Me account has been set up to take donations for the library during this important time. It can be found by searching “Grand Saline Public Library” at www.gofundme.com. If you don’t have access to make the donation online, I’m sure that an in person donation would be more than happily accepted. Please carefully consider making a donation to help get it up and over that steep hill.

Let’s not let this opportunity pass to save one of the most important resources we have. The loss of a library is a terrible thing, but together we can keep that from happening in Grand Saline. I KNOW we can!

**This piece was first published in the March 29, 2017 edition of the Grand Saline Sun.