A Circle Closes

Today is the last day of school.  This is always a complicated, bittersweet time.  On one hand, I get to begin my easiest stretch of the year–teaching summer school part time–and work on forgetting those irritating students who got on my nerves all year.  It’s  a natural break in life, this completing of a cycle, and it never fails to make me feel like I’m getting a fresh start.

On the other hand, I have regrets.  This is the time of year when I look back on the last nine months with a critical eye and lament the lost opportunities and lessons, my failure to present more material and to do it more passionately, to enforce standards more strictly, and to reach for the greater, more ambitious heights that I know I’m capable of.  I’m too often content with mediocrity, and it makes me sick inside. 

I may resolve to do this or that next year, and I usually make good on those specific resolutions, but I realize that I will always look back on school years and focus on what more could have been done.  I’m Oskar Schindler wishing I could have sold my watch and sung the praises of just one more book, or worked one-on-one with just one more student revising an essay. 

And that’s the ultimate regret, and the hardest thing about this time of year.  I really do love working with so many of these kids, and it’s hard to say goodbye to a lot of them.  Doing so invariably makes me sentimental, and spurs in me a renewed desire to overcome both my shy, anti-social tendencies as well as my professional coolness and forge a closer bond with these wonderful young people.  Would it kill me to be a little nicer once in a while? 

A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine said in a department meeting that you have to like the kids.  That remark has haunted me.  I don’t agree with it.  You don’t have to like the kids.  You have to be able to work with them, and you have to be dedicated to the success of a larger endeavor that motivates your work.  In my case, I’m motivated by patriotism–a devotion to the ongoing success of our republic–and love of language–my need to preserve this heritage for another generation to enjoy. 

But I do like a lot of the kids.  They’re largely shallow, deceitful, selfish, entitled to hedonism, and secure in staid ignorance–even the smart ones–but there’s also an infectious vivacity in everything they do that brings out the best in me.  I love seeing them latch on to something new–maybe something I introduced them to–and then running with it.  I’m amused by the way they pretend to be so dramatic and jaded.  Sixteen-year-olds are just as desperate to please their leaders as six-year-olds are, all anti-authority rhetoric aside.  They laugh more than adults do, they’re comfortable being silly, and their openness to infinite opportunity stands as a monumental reminder of all the life that still lies ahead for us all. 

Even when they’re cussing or falling asleep or texting on the cell phones they’re trying to hide. 

So here I am, yet again, exhilarated and exhausted, looking forward to the blessed break and pining for the recent past.  I want to fix the mistakes and heighten the joys of the last nine months again.  And I suppose I will, next year. 

But for today, I am an old bird with an empty nest.

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