When asked to describe what I appreciate about my job as a high school math teacher, I rarely fail to mention that I hate change. I’m only partially joking, and I really don’t envy those whose careers twist and turn toward goals that are constantly jumping from one place to another. But this year in particular, I’m being forced to consider that while there is a true consistency in my objectives in teaching, change is still an overwhelming presence. The very thing that fends off any trace of monotony carries with it the greatest challenge, even sadness. The students come, and the students go.
In the fall, I don’t balk at the dozens of new faces, each with an associated name that I do not know. The struggle to form new relationships from square one is part of the predictability of teaching, and it is tinged with opportunity and hope. No, this time of year I’m faced with saying goodbye. It’s true that I do that every year as well. It shouldn’t catch me off guard. I even told my wife the other night that I should be well trained in letting go by the time my four-year-old daughter has completed her secondary education. Of course, the idea came to mind because I’m currently feeling a bit deficient in my ability to let go. Can you blame me? In the last couple days, young people who have walked into my room two hundred times in the last two years, waved and walked out the door for the last time.
Because it’s true that I’ve never approached the end of a school year with such mixed emotions (typically it’s practically impossible to compete with my joy in reaching a time of vacation, family, and personal pursuits), I wanted to share some of the things that allowed the 2013 THMS graduates to make such a strong impression on me. This list couldn’t possibly exhaust the attributes of this collection of young people, and surely, my attachment has grown primarily through individual connections with students in the time I’ve known them. Still, I perceive some value in this exercise.
The first, maybe the most impressive quality of this group of “high school kids” is their friendship. In my mind, I can run through at least a dozen pairs or sets of friends that I would call highly valuable, and that is just amongst the students that I’ve had in classes. These are the kind of friendships that are worth holding onto while life takes so many of us in different directions, and I don’t think Facebook will be good enough. The phone calls and even cross country visits that might be necessary to sustain these friendships will be time and energy well spent. I get to see friends practicing patience, sacrifice, finding joy in the joy of others, forgiveness, and so much more. In spite of the fact that they don’t have college or work friends to compare them with, these students seem to recognize that high school friends offer an opportunity to know and be known at a tangibly deeper level.
Then it’s as if friendship spills over into friendliness. It’s difficult for me to imagine another class where it was easier to join midway through their trek toward graduation. I might overhear someone say, “It seems so weird to think that you weren’t here two years ago. I can hardly believe it.” I only wish it were more perfectly true, but there really are very few perceived boundaries over which these kids aren’t willing to reach to enjoy another persons company.
The third thing that comes to mind when I reflect on the seniors I had in my classes this year is their contagious optimism. Fortunately for them, I think it is anything but a hopeless optimism. Many of them are already learning how hard work mixes with their natural gifts and abilities to produce incredible results. The others, seem to be poised on the edge of that discovery, but maybe that’s my hopeless optimism showing through. Each individual doesn’t only recognize the potential in herself or himself; they recognize and promote the potential in each other by devotion of time and effort in each other’s learning. They are already learning to be teachers at heart, even if that won’t be their professional path.
I don’t have the time I need to continue this list. There’s plenty I could say about the courage of certain individuals in the face of physical pain and the courage of other individuals in the face of emotional pain. When it comes down to what has meant the most to me personally, I would have to say that I’ve felt more appreciated by this group than any previous graduating class. There is very little that is more rewarding for a high school teacher than to feel that your students have understood your intentions and valued your efforts. Lip service can’t accomplish that; it has to be demonstrated through actions.
No, these young adults are not perfect. Just read what they’re posting on Twitter. Yes, my view of the class of 2013 is tinted by calculus colored glasses, which means that I believe I have been exposed primarily to the most easily appreciated segment of the population. But I don’t think that makes what I’ve written any less true. If you are a young person making the transition to adulthood, I hope that this essay assures you that people are paying attention to who you are and that we notice when you choose to do what’s right, even when it’s hard. If you find that your teenage years are a distant memory, I hope that reading this will encourage you to invest yourself in the children who are a part of your life. They will notice your actions as well.
If you are one of the members of the TMHS class of 2013 that I have been honored to know, may God bless you. That has been my prayer for several months, and I won’t stop hoping for it in the years to come. I hope that you will always remember that you have so much to gain by offering your very best to the world and by meeting the needs of your friends and all the others around you. Congratulations on your graduation!