This was not how I expected my three years of teaching at a small liberal arts college to end.
A week ago today, I walked into the all-girls dormitory carrying a homemade bouquet of flowers. I walked in alone and lurked about the corners for a bit before climbing the stairs.
Twenty minutes later, I sat in the dim light of the dorm lounge, trying to wipe away tears.
Leaving has been more difficult than I expected.
When we decided to light out for the territory, how my students felt about me and how I felt about my students was not a significant factor. Certainly I accounted for my love of teaching and the possibility that I may never teach college students again. However, my students as people, as individuals, as humans that had a personal connection to me--and I to them--that never really concerned me.
Instead, the last weeks of school have been a surprising series of touching and painful gestures from students both close to me and what I would have guessed were mere acquaintances.
Such gestures are not common for me. Even in anonymous course evaluations, students are rarely effusive in their praise nor particularly vitriolic in their condemnation: "Nice guy." "Funny." "Grades unfairly." "Could be better prepared."
Yet leaving for good, instead of the mere summer break, has embolden them, and their words and gestures have left me both speechless and aching to tell them how grateful and indebted I am to them.
A short slide show:
The student that I taught for one semester, a non-English major, stops me in the hall to express her disappointment. She decided to take another English course next year because of me.
Three students whom I taught in various classes from my first semester at Dana, nearly always in one class or another, sitting side-by-side for my very last class ever.
One of the above three hands me a long and touching note, remembering my first blasphemous remark on the first day of class, and the gradual realization that much of what he is was in part because of me.
The quiet student--who seemed stunned at her grade on her first exam last semester, but by spring was dazzling me with her wit and inventiveness in creative writing--sitting in my office and perhaps coming to the realization that she was indeed much smarter, much more creative, and much much more deserving than her current circumstances offered.
One of the leaders of his graduating class standing next to me in his regalia discussing our plans to travel across the country--a journey that seemed tedious when first presented, but now seems quite exciting for me.
The babysitting student--who this semester survived both a terrible accident and unrelated surgery to return and perform brilliantly in one of my courses--lying on my couch with Ciela sleeping quietly next to her when Judy and I returned from dinner. On her cheek, a small scar from the accident that seems to speak to some sort of fragility about choices made and lost and that holds such power, pain and beauty that I sometimes find myself unable to look directly at her. And seeing Ciela, the ultimate impetus for leaving in the arms of someone that pulls unrelently back, a memorial of near loss and a sentry standing at this ache for one more year of teaching bright and eager students.
( And good lord, I know that I'm taking a young woman's horribly bad luck and mutating it into a personal symbol for my leaving, and but that it just makes the physical beauty that much more seering and personal for me. In her, I cannot help but regret the abandonment, the lost opportunity to work with someone so talented and intelligent. Such a person is not so easily set aside and apparently, I cannot do so without investing in her something far more than any of us are comfortable with. So J. my apologies for the mawkish sentiment above and for turning you into a symbol of my newfound regret at leaving. Send me any English paper in the next year, and I'll happily edit it and provide you with any guidance gratis.)
And lastly, the awkward, foolishly sentimental moment in the girls dorm. The premier of a student-directed movie in which I nararrated and played a small role as myself. The two auteurs, students of mine, conceived of the idea after I finished teaching excerpts from Thoreau's Walden. They approached me with the idea of the film and asked, at first, just for my participation, but then generously allowed me to suggest they expand and deepen their idea into something more significant. The end result was humorous, satiric, quite clever and well-produced. None of which was enough to bring me to tears until they closed the credits by dedicating the film to the college and then to me.
Crying in the lounge of the girls dorm.
Even during my own college years, I never sunk so low.
To K and H, M, Wisconsin M, G, Mo, D and J and all my students, I would like to say thank you. One: pre-emptively for not suing me for possibly exposing you in the public forum. And two; for providing me with the final memory of my time in Nebraska. Many of you want to accredit me with far more than I am worth. We who teach, teach under an illusion (if not delusion) that we are shaping young minds. In fact, we stand on a house of cards that holds true only because of the desire of the students to change. I had very little to do with where you are now. I merely showed you what you could do. Thanking me is like Picasso thanking the superintendent for "Guernica" Picasso didn't paint in the dark; and if I did anything, it was merely to turn on the lights.
But thank you, nonetheless, for the remarkably kind comments and for the opportunity to teach you. Much of the job is tedious grading, committee meetings, attendence records, re-reading of dull material (god save the puritans). But nearly every minute in the classroom was, for me, invigorating, exhilirating and exhausting. I once wrote on this blog that teaching seemed to be 90 minutes of stand-up comedy. You all were a fabulous audience. I bless you: more life. My heart beats for all of you.