When the final bell rang, the students dashed out of our rooms and, after some prodding over the intercom, left the building for the summer. When I came back from lunch (the third time all year that I got to go out to lunch on a workday—woohoo!), an eerie calm had settled in the hallway, the lights were dimmed, and every locker door was hanging open for an eventual cleanout. I marveled at the shocking array of left-behind scarves, notebooks, sneakers, toasters, and posters. The building itself seemed to release an exhausted sigh at its seams.
As I sunk into my desk chair, I found two emails from students who wanted to know what their grade on the final exam (taken two hours prior) was and what that would make their final grade for the class and if I would round up, and if so, how much. And was it too late for extra credit? Delete ... delete.
An hour later, as I entered a B for a student’s grade, I said wryly to my coworker, “I wonder when this kid’s dad will call.” He emailed me at 10:30 that night. This was a man who sent me a gag-inducing letter in September asking for my “help in molding this world changing young man into the person he was born to be.” He capitalized the s in son, and given the religious overtones in the rest of the letter, I feared this was no typo.
In his June 15th email (which began “First off, Cameron is the best Son a man could ask for”), sent after my grades were submitted and an 18-week semester had gone by and
We get these last-ditch, desperate requests from students (and as evidenced above, from parents) every June, and while they’re sometimes innocent clarifications that nothing further can be done (after all, it can’t hurt to ask, right?), they often cross over into the Realm of the Absolutely Absurd (see: this horrifyingly accurate video dramatization of my life last week). It reminds me of Christmas Eve, and how the stores are always jam-packed with anxious, last-minute shoppers. I don’t get it. Was there some sense of surprise when December 25th snuck up? I use that analogy with my students around mid-May, when I’m delivering my “give-it-your-last-push-just-hang-in-there-don’t-give-up-you’re-almost-to-the-finish-line” speech, and they giggle knowingly.
But from a teaching standpoint, the year ended well. I instituted a three-way class competition (the prize: donuts and juice during the final exam) to bring in books for our school-wide book drive, and my students wowed me by emptying their shelves, bugging their relatives, engaging in some spirited trash talk, and ultimately donating 1,400 books. They were in good humor, despite gray skies awaiting them outside. Each of my classes finished their exams with about ten minutes to spare, which is an ideal window of time: it allows them to take a breath and decompress before they go, and I’m able to express my thanks for a year of helping me learn and making me laugh.
Teachers tend to be a reflective bunch—you must be if you hope to improve—but June provides the need and opportunity for an even deeper analysis. When the students are gone and grades are in and the car is loaded with dusty classroom fixtures, the year tends to cycle through my mind. I consider successes and regrets. Then I dwell on the regrets some more: a lesson that fell apart, a kid I kept meaning to check in with and never did, a phone call home that I never found time to make. Eventually, inevitably, I begin to wonder if I made much difference at all.
At a staff potluck on Friday, a coworker was describing her love of manual labor—of getting outside and digging all day, for instance. “Really?” I asked, thinking of my disgraceful front yard. “In our line of work,” she said, “we don’t see a product.” Gardening or drywalling a bathroom offers the chance to sit back and proudly view the fruits of her labor, but teaching doesn’t offer that type of satisfaction. Sure, we can sit at graduation and feel that we played a role in the success of those students, and we feel a sense of satisfaction when test scores improve, but those measures are not so clear, and as an individual, I cannot claim that I am the cause of those effects.
“Who ever said English was boring?”
So I made it through my fifth year. I made it through budget cuts. And I made a difference, however humble. I need to do better next year, no doubt, but for now, I’m going to pick up a shovel and get to work.