My Why

Approximate reading time:4 minutes


I am…emotionally hungover right now. Wednesday night was senior convocation, yesterday was the juniors’ last day, and like an exhalation into the wind, they have slipped from my reach to join the wider stream of life. Just like that, my second year of teaching is over.

This was my first time teaching a large number of seniors, so the goodbyes were especially difficult. They aren’t just leaving my classroom; many are leaving the safety and familiarity of home and family. Neither they nor I know what the future will bring, but I know better than they how harsh the world can be. And so I long to grasp their hands again, to protect them from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to guide them away from danger toward success. But I can’t hold on, for they must learn to guide and protect themselves. And so the wheel of life keeps turning.

The last time I left a school, I couldn’t feel anything. Not because I cared for my students any less, but because my emotional fuses were burnt out by depression, and by that point all I wanted was to go home. So I guess this torrent of grief is not so bad since it means I’m still capable of feeling something, though I do wish the process were less protracted. (Because of our school’s schedule, I feel like I’ve been saying goodbye for a week straight.)

Sometimes I think it’s difficult for non-teachers to really get what I do and why I do it. I don’t say that to make myself out to be some sort of saint, just to acknowledge the mild insanity of pouring hours of work and gallons of emotional energy (not to mention commute time and gasoline, at least this year) into 100 teenagers who may or may not hang onto anything I’ve taught them. But that’s okay…I no longer have visions of myself starring in Good Will Hunting. I want to see individual students pursue and reach their own goals,whatever they are.

Late last week, one of my seniors came up to me, frantic. She had failed her science OGT (Ohio Graduation Test) by one point, and as a result her home school said she was not allowed to participate in graduation ceremonies with her class. My opinions on standardized testing aside, I couldn’t bear to see her miss out on graduation because of one point. She told me that her home school was discussing alternate pathways to graduation, including raising her science GPA. We looked at her grades for the year and noticed that while her quarter grades maintained a high B average, her exam grades were a bit lower than desired. So I allowed her to make corrections on her second semester exam, which brought her science GPA to a 2.4. According to her home school, that still wasn’t good enough, and at that point we were at the day of convocation for the career center. (Her home school’s graduation is not until this weekend.) Desperate, I dug up her first semester exam and she took it home to make corrections. Meanwhile, our guidance counselor brought me a recommendation form sent by her home school, in which I testified to her academic abilities and career-technical skills in a field requiring scientific understanding of the human body. I sent the form back with fingers crossed (and possibly one finger at the state department of education….)

Convocation came and went. Nothing stopped her from receiving the career-tech certificates she had rightly earned. The next morning, I got this message from her:

Good Morning Ms. Duann, I just wanted to say thank you for such an amazing year. I also wanted to say thank you for helping me so much to get the one point in order to be able to graduate. I was informed last night at convocation that I will be graduating and walking with my graduating class…and I appreciate all the help it means a lot. Thank you.

That’s the payoff. And yet for every student like this, there’s another one (or two or four or ten) that slip through the cracks. As I was leaving school for the last time today, my mind went to one girl who dropped out at the end of first semester. She had told me about her horrible experiences in foster care and trying to connect with her birth mother, about the boy that she’d met online and wanted to move in with her when she got her own place, about how ostracized she felt by the other students in her program. I thought of her, wishing intently that I could see her again, even just to say goodbye, and I will probably remember her for many years to come.

Earlier this month I wondered whether I would be needed as much at my new school. The students at my new school will probably have fewer home and family issues than those I worked with this year, but they’ll still need someone to cheer their successes, someone to nudge them toward the next level, someone to visualize the better versions of themselves that they can’t see yet. That doesn’t change from school to school, student to student. That I can always do.

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