Sunday, June 12, 2011

the senior send-off

June puts the chaos at other hectic times of the school year to shame. While I struggle to prepare increasingly-anxious students for final exams, deal with the deluge of late work that students suddenly remember to turn in, battle parents over grades that were a semester in the making, clear out the classroom for this summer’s construction, and try to keep teaching well against all seasonal odds, the annual senior traditions—those formal and otherwise—keep my heart merry and remind me why I teach.

On the Wednesday before graduation, several of our staff don Hawaiian apparel and serve up a hot breakfast to seniors in a tropically-themed cafeteria. The esteemed elder students don’t even have to handle their plates. They shuffle down the buffet line, replying “yes” or “no” to an escort who asks, “Eggs?” “How about bacon?” “Do you want some sausage?” The room is filled with the sounds of ukulele and excitement: there are students thrilled to get breakfast from their math teacher, some simply thrilled to be getting breakfast at all, and enthusiastic staff members, many of whom arrived an hour early to work wearing kukui nut leis to pay homage to our graduating class.

A student ritual in the final week for seniors is the impromptu visits to former classrooms. Depending on their schedule of classes (or lack thereof), the near-grads drop in for conversation, to say goodbye, to collect teachers’ well wishes in their yearbooks. I sometimes see students again for the first time in two years. I locate a humble blank spot in the pages of their annual, dredge up a personal memory or inside joke we shared, and scribble away. Then, my favorite part: I ask what’s next. While my question is about life plans in general, they often answer with their intended major, which sometimes surprises me, allowing a curious glimpse into what has impacted their journeys and where their priorities lie.

“Sign Language, with a minor in Business,” one said, gleaming.

Many don’t have majors yet and are stressed about lacking a ready answer. Somewhere along the way, someone lied about them needing to have it all figured out by now.

When one of my students told me he’ll be firefighting all summer, I felt an odd and familiar reaction. Tyler was going to be out there, in the world, doing something that “real people” do. I couldn’t imagine him anywhere other than our hallways. It turns out that the strange filter through which students view teachers—leading them to believe that we’re not normal people who do things like grocery shopping—goes both ways. I once told a story to a class about my poor decision to go on an unplanned hike in my flip-flops. The climax, which involved me sliding helplessly down an embankment, was of no interest to my audience. Instead, through fits of laughter, all they could muster was, “You wear flip-flops?” And here I was doing the same thing. You’re going to fight fires? But you’re Tyler! You’re just a high schooler! That’s ridiculous!

I observed another tradition, graduation practice, for the first time this year. The morning presents an interesting tension: students are finished with classes, many of them are 18 years old, but they haven’t walked across the stage yet—a privilege held over their wily heads until the last possible moment—so they must still play the part of students, sitting (somewhat) still while we run through rehearsal, listening (somewhat) to instructions and reminders, and even bubbling in a 42-question survey.

One boy had broken his arm and needed me to complete his survey for him. I pulled up a chair, took his tiny golf pencil, and got to work.

“B,” he ordered.
“No, D.”
“No, E.”

That’s when we decided to use the military alphabet to help us more efficiently get through this task. But since we could only think of Alpha, Charlie, and Delta, I insisted we come up with a new code. He happily obliged, and I ended up wishing I could have known this kid before that morning.

“Anteater ... anteater ... anteater ... baby ... anteater ... elephant.”
“Wait. Elephant was number 17?”
“No, 17 is anteater. Then baby for 18.”
“Got it.”

That night, the students returned in all their regalia for the best tradition of all. A sea of 430 young men and women in caps and gowns tends to make all the struggles of the past year seem worth it. Graduation night is a confirmation for everyone in attendance—a moment when, I believe, students, parents, and teachers collectively think, “We did it.”
Before and after the ceremony, there are precious customs I can count on, such as hugs and posing for pictures and promises to keep in touch. I can count on shenanigans of some sort: I overheard two boys at practice discussing how to smuggle in cans of Mountain Dew to open when they were announced as graduates ... not so they could spray their peers, as I had initially surmised, but so they could hastily chug them. In the back hallway minutes before the ceremony, the ruffians lifted their gowns for me and giggled, revealing cans that had been tape-holstered to their legs. If this is the worst crime of the evening, I thought, graduation will have been a success. And it was.

The next morning, I had a handful of friend requests on Facebook from students who had anxiously awaited adding their teachers. That tradition’s only a few years old, and I still debate over how to handle it. What constitutes a “friend” when it’s a former student? Do I want to see his tattoos? (Sort of.) His political views? (Maybe.) Her musings on college life? (Yes.) Her party pictures? (No.) The teacher-student line, especially in this age, grows blurry after the caps are thrown. It’s strange to think that I’ll inevitably be present at baby showers, rodeos, and even staff meetings some day with my former students in attendance.

Already, tradition has shown that some will choose to surprise me. Sometimes, it’s an email a year later or an unexpected visit in dress blues. At brunch with a friend last week, the waitress giggled as she put my breadbowl of soup down before me. “You have some fans in the back,” she said, gesturing to the kitchen. “Alums of yours.” The hole for the soup was carved into a heart. Yep, this is why I teach.


Anonymous said...

me too : )
nice post

themirrorline said...

Your alternative to military code cracked me up!

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