The hidden wounds of graduation

We teachers are odd creatures. This becomes clear during the graduation ceremonies that litter this month’s calendars like dust bunnies on unswept stairwells. The kids scream with delight and get can’t get away from school fast enough, while teachers go home to lick their wounds.

Teachers live by an artificial clock. In June we refer to doing things at the start of “next year” when that’s really only eight weeks away. We choose to spend our professional lives working with a demographic that would rather be anywhere else than with us on most days. We force a smile when teased about working “only” 10 months a year even as we spend countless hours at night and on weekends to plan and evaluate our lessons. My father-in-law once brought a sock puppet on a car trip because he knew the rest of us would be talking about teaching nonstop (he wanted something to talk to). Eventually, we wonder where the time has gone when former students talk, impossibly, about their own kids.

The fact is each graduation day brings a kind of death. Those outside teaching don’t necessarily realize the emotional toll involved as each school year ends. Our careers are an endless cycle of attachment and loss. We begin the year coaxing our students out of their shells, encouraging risks and showing them how even failure is a step toward success. As the year progresses, we see them grow and find themselves as they acquire the confidence they need to face the larger challenges ahead. Along the way, they become “our” kids — even the ones that drive us crazy sometimes.

As a result, the raucous eruptions of joy those students display at the end of every graduation ceremony are often met with wry smiles and tempered applause by their teachers. Each graduation sees the teachers left behind, emptied, forever rooted to the same patch of highway as we wave our young charges on.

We return to a palpable sadness that lingers in school buildings during July and August, a lifeless quality that haunts every room. The ghosts of laughter echo through empty hallways, forgotten quizzes peeking from corners of open lockers. Desks and chairs are piled high outside rooms as they’re cleaned, weary soldiers fresh from the wars. The classrooms themselves still bear the signs of their former occupants from the previous 10 months: Eddie’s alien drawing clings to the bulletin board with one remaining tack; Jimena’s “Enjoy your summer — I’ll miss you!” still scrawled inside the giant heart she drew on the whiteboard.

Teachers talk a big game about how we can’t wait to hit the beach and spend a weekend without correcting essays, but an emptiness opens inside us every June. When the final faculty meeting of the academic year ends and the last of the cake’s been eaten, the wind leaves our sails. It won’t come back until September, when a new batch of students stumble into our classrooms weighed down by shiny backpacks and their own sadness that summer’s over.

Until then, I send congratulations to everyone involved in this week’s commencement exercises. To my students, I want to thank you for being everything a teacher could ever ask for. Please understand if I seem a little sad this week because, for me, every graduation day brings with it a fresh wound as I watch you leave.

Just know I’m forever grateful for the scars …

 

You can read more at RobertFWalsh.net and contact him at rob@RobertFWalsh.net or follow him on Twitter @RobertFWalsh.

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