I have been trying to write this piece for several days. The words get lost in the emotions and can’t find their way out–kind of like they’re stuck in an escape room with clues laid out that may or may not be meaningful or purposeful, all the while growing more exhausted and frustrated that they’re stuck. I have an ache in my head where the tears are stuck. There’s something to be said for writing that happens organically, while the emotions are fresh, but…yeah. That wasn’t going to happen this time.
Wednesday night a group of kids graduated to high school. I’ve watched several of this group grow up from itty bitties just starting Kindergarten. We have a photo of one being held by her dad, looking at him as if to say, “Hey Daddy, it’s gonna be just fine.” One helped me paint what would eventually be my classroom. He did the low parts of the wall back then and he’s now almost a head taller than I am and beats me in Exploding Kittens often. Others spent two years of our language arts class together whining about all the writing I “made” them do, while others devoured grammar and writing like a teacher at the end of the year consumes coffee and donuts she finds in the lounge. Still others joined us along the way, finding a home in our school, a tribe in which they could be themselves, figure out who they wanted to be, and learn about who they were as learners and thinkers and people.
They’re definitely not adults, but also not completely children anymore, having grown up into simply amazing young men and women who will begin the next phase of their journey, high school, in a few months. Many are old souls and have been their whole lives…and each shows it a bit differently. They’ve grown so much in nine years…and I’ve enjoyed watching every moment of it. They’re wonderful human beings, and each of them has taken up residence in my heart: From the one who shared a long list of what she wanted to be when she grew up, to dancers who cultivated their activist leanings, to the writers and poets (the reluctant ones, too), to the young rocketeers and scientists, to the artists and adventurers, to the future lawyers, to the one who had found her BFF in the first four seconds of the first day of third grade, the leaders and doers, and to the quiet ones with eyes that took in everything, the old souls, and the deep thinkers who said little but felt much.
This batch of kids shared with me memories of our time together over the last few days. One shared that she and a new friend weren’t sure where they were supposed to go on the first day of third grade and decided my classroom was a good spot to land–they knew me from our intro conferences and felt at home enough to stick around. I vaguely remember counting heads at one point and thinking, “Hey…I have two extra,” and figured out where they should actually be. I love that they made themselves comfortable that morning…and that she remembered the story. So many of them had stories like that. Moments we shared, things they remembered. Others were just teary all over the place because they’re sad to leave this place they’ve called home for so many years and heading off into a new adventure, which is probably seeming a little scary. Some have simply said thank you over and over again the last several days…recognizing that our time together is precious, and they didn’t want to move too fast and forget. I got pretty teary several times, holding each one a bit tighter, a bit closer, a bit longer as we said our goodbyes, remembering days when they didn’t stand a foot taller than me.
The first group of kids we sent off into the world came to us as eighth graders for a reason that first year. They graduated college this year. They knew what we were about and they helped us build the plane as we flew it. Those who came after had big shoes to fill, but still managed to understand our “Why.” This particular group of graduates understood our “Why” better than all those before them. They knew they were getting a different type of education from the first day of kindergarten. They understood, particularly those who joined us after kindergarten, that they needed something different, that they learned differently, that they were just inherently different than other kids. They left us understanding a bit better of who they are…with all their glorious quirks and asynchronous bits. They left us knowing how to ask for what they need, how to set boundaries, and that their passion is the most important thing. We helped them learn that…and it matters.
Last night, we had an alumni event with ice cream and schmoozing. A few recent graduates joined us, and the others are from a variety of periods with one or two who left to do other things but still call this place home. A few graduates come to several events a year, living nearby or having siblings still with us, to see what’s going on and how things have changed…if things have changed. It’s good for current kids to know that there are graduates about–it lets them see that there is life beyond the 8th grade, and they’ll find their tribe even after they leave. Some of the kids who came last night came for a particular purpose, because someone they wanted to see might be there: an old friend, a teacher, or just a familiar face. Some of these were mine…and it was so good to share in their successes, their challenges…and to get to watch them be kids for a while, remembering what it is to be little while their six-foot-plus sized bodies squeezed into kindergartener-sized swings and to play four-square and chase and slide down a slide tucked into the side of a hill.
For those of us who come to these end of year evening events, two graduation ceremonies and a social, it’s a long week and our feet hurt and we’re tired. But it’s important that we show up. The kids need to know we’re still there. And for us, it’s just as important. These kids remind of us of our “Why” every time. They remind us that we choose where we teach and we choose the impact we get to make. They remind us that kids need advocates and to have someone in their world at school who really SEES them for who they are, not for the work they do or the scores they produce or the progress that makes it looks like a lot of growth on paper for a teacher evaluation or an award given to the school by the superintendent. These kids are more than all of that. They’re why others and I choose to do this work. Sometimes it’s messy. Sometimes it’s heartbreaking. Sometimes it’s exhilarating. And sometimes it’s all the emotions…all at once while you’re standing in your office with the last remaining tissue box.
Go off and do good, sweet kidlets… Go off and do good. Come home once in a while, though, wouldja? We’d love to see you.