Tonight I said a final farewell to the Western Heights High School Class of 2016.There has really only been one other time I was so reluctant to let go of a group of kids, and even then there weren’t as many that had come to be like family. The idea that I’m going to work tomorrow and won’t see these kids is really hard to accept.
I’m tempted to name all my AP Lit students here and tell a story about them, but that wasn’t my intent with this post. There are some good stories. I’ll only tell one, and it’s one from Friday, the last day of class. The seniors were dismissed after their assembly that day, which ended around 10:30 a.m. A couple of my girls, Sarah and Casidee, had been working for a couple of days to surprise me by getting most of my 6th hour AP Lit class to come back during their regular class time; they’d even arranged with another teacher to get me out of the room so they could get in undetected. That’s them in the photo, along with a few of my 2nd hour AP Lit kids. They also gave me a photo album with pictures going back to the beginning of the school year. There were flowers, food, some letters, and a couple of other gifts. It was an overwhelming display of affection and I doubt they’ll ever know how much it really meant to me.
As I told them, I didn’t want to come back to Western Heights this year. I tried very hard to find another job last summer. I won’t go into all the reasons, but one of them was because my best friend left the school. Left public education for a charter school. Now two more friends are leaving the Heights for the same charter school. I’ve applied at that charter school at least three times and can’t get an interview.
Tonight, after the graduation, two of my girls from last year, Daniela and Christine, stopped to talk to me. They told me about an event they organized at the Oklahoma Capitol a few months ago to raise awareness about the budget crisis and its effect on public education. They explained how they were telling everyone who stopped at the table they set up about me and how they were doing that for me. Someone else was telling me his brother, Class of 2008, still talks about me, wishing he’d been in my class; that was my first full year as a teacher and I didn’t even know what I was doing. Demarcus’s mom thanked me tonight for being a great teacher and said Demarcus talks about me all the time. Demarcus is an amazing young man … but I’ve never had him in class. Why would he talk about me? Why would a 2008 senior, who I didn’t have in class, talk about me?
I’m not fishing for compliments here. I don’t consider myself a great teacher. I’m no Wilda Walker, Gladys Lewis, or James McCurtain. Those are great teachers. I’m just a guy who decided to try teaching after several other careers left me unfulfilled. I love reading and writing, and have learned that I love helping kids. I am in awe of someone like James, who is all business and passion but who has the love and respect of his students without having to resort to jokes and teasing them.
Another of my girls, Lyndie, gave me a journal as a gift. She wrote a letter on the opening page and I’d like to share a small excerpt of that here:
I hope that one day I can inspire my future students in the same way you have countless others. I’m very blessed to have spent my senior year with you … One day I will look into my very own classroom and I’ll think of you, the person who has opened my eyes to the magic English has to offer, and smile. Smile not just for the good memories I have, but also for the ones I have yet to make.
I can’t read that without getting a lump in my throat. I don’t know when I inspired her, or even how. This is a kid I admired long before I realized I was having any impact on her. She’s smart, she’s got it together, she’s a good person. A virtuous person. I inspired her? Oh Lyndie, thank you, but it’s the other way around.
I wanted to be a rich and famous author. (Okay, I still do.) I thought nothing less than a literary legacy would ever make me happy in terms of a career. I was wrong. Sure, it’d be great to write something kids will study in school a hundred years from now, but is that a better legacy than the words Lyndie wrote to me? Better than having a group of incredible girls become politically active on my behalf? Lyndie will go on to inspire thousands of kids herself because she’s smart enough to know what she wants to do with her life at age 18 (unlike me, who began teaching at 40). As Tom Joad would say, when she smiles at her students, I’ll be there.
There are things I don’t like about Western Heights, but I have to wonder if it is my fate to stay there, at least a while longer, helping the kids who come through Room 42. (And apparently some who never do.) Does that sound arrogant? Or like I’m making an excuse for no other school wanting me? I don’t know. I just know I’ve come to the point that I’m okay with it. Where else could I go and find another Casidee, or Sarah, or Ben, or Jess, or Lyndie, or … You get the idea. And those are just names from this year. Shellby? Lacey? Tarryn? Chanh? So many others. So many others who have enriched my life. And so many more to come.
I’ll likely never see my name on the New York Times bestseller list. I don’t need that now. I won’t stop writing and publishing, but I do that for me now, not for a dream of wealth and celebrity. That picture up there and the things I was told tonight are better than fame and money, even if they don’t pay the bills.
No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another. — Charles Dickens