My freshman year of teaching, they were freshman in high school. I watched them grow up in my periphery, and when we came face to face our collective senior year, I wasn’t prepared for the spark of light they would bring to each day. We were in the trenches together, that class and I. The grown up world is a struggle sometimes, but at the start of that bell, the gloom dissipated and the classroom door shut out any storm that raged outside. No day was so difficult that they couldn’t make me smile. But each changing season, each new work of literature, and each new idea, marked the passage of time that would not be slowed. And then they were gone. Empty halls, empty schedule, graded finals. Their brief absence was softened by the promise of looming graduation and their brief return.
Graduation rehearsal was a flurry of reunions, confusion, and laughter. Line them up one way. Reverse the order. Alphabetical order. Reverse alphabetical order. Keep them quiet in the line. Oops–I’m the one talking when we’re supposed to be listening. Final reminders, parting words, and don’t forget your caps and gowns!
The next morning, I waited with them in the library while the grown up world assembled outside and prepared for the big event. Straightening ties, tucking hair under the elastic cap, attaching and reattaching runaway tassels. And pictures. So many pictures: formal professional photographer poses and cellphone selfies.
Five minute warning. Collect the cell phones, last minute tassel check, alphabetical order check and they lined up. And suddenly the reality hit that this was the last moment I would have them all together. Trying keep my voice from breaking I told them: “I love you all. You’re going to make a beautiful tomorrow.”
The line departed. We waited behind the rest of the faculty, marched behind the flag bearers across the driveway outside, and filed into the sanctuary. I could hear the electronic keyboard playing Pomp and Circumstance as the rest of the faculty filed in. A few last minute tassel fixes, still one more picture, and one of the girls handed me her lip gloss to hold. I could feel time slipping away. The faculty disappeared, and the line of graduates followed the flag bearers to the chapel entrance.
I turned to the first student, gave a reassuring smile, a gentle tap of the arm to cue her it was her time, and she led the way. One by one they filed through; each quick good-bye like the curtain call of our year together. Suddenly, there is only when left. “Last one!” I whispered with a with a quick grin, nodding for him to march and suddenly I stood alone, watching him walk down the aisle toward the rest of his class who stood waiting on the stage.
And that’s when I lost it. I had used the phrase “spread your wings” in various capacities with them leading up to graduation. I know…as their English teacher, I probably should have come up with something less cliche. However, standing alone in the back of the auditorium, I felt like the old lady in Mary Poppins who cries as the song says, “while overhead her birds fill the skies.” Their beautiful wings had spread, and they were soaring.
For a teacher, a graduation is a bittersweet epilogue. The ending of the chapter we shared is hard, but greater than that is the joy of scattering into dozens of new chapters and new journeys.