Jun 14, 2012

Epilogue to a School Year

At the Bladensburg High School graduation a week ago, I cried. Really cried. In the tunnel at ShowPlace Arena, as the beaming and kind of dazed-looking 2012 graduates filed out of the arena into a suddenly different world, tears fell fast and freely from my eyes. I called out to students and they screamed my name, and we clutched each other like people who had gone through something together and made it out okay. What were they remembering? What was I?

The whole thing caught me off guard. After all, it was the class of 2011 that had been my beloved ones, from the time they came to my 9th-grade U.S. History class in August 2007. With them, I’d had my first year as a really good teacher. I had demanded a lot of that opinionated and cocky bunch, had pushed myself hard that year, and had tried new things. I knew their graduation last June would be a milestone for me -– a denouement, really -- and it was.

I didn’t think another class of students would impact me in such a personal way as that bunch had. Yet, here I was at graduation 2012 with all these tears.  

While the beloved class of 2011 had allowed me to stretch out intellectually and creatively, this year’s class had made a hard impression on my emotions. Many of them were as affable and unwitting as the previous class had been bold and righteous. I had kept my eye on quite a few of them after their freshman year. They would faithfully stop by my classroom to give and get a hug, and to update me on various things. One morning this past February, Nishant, a senior, paused at my classroom door, said a cheerful, “Good Morning, Ms. M-D!” and then added: “I’m so sorry I forgot your birthday … I hope it was good!”

My birthday! I knew that the birthday of his older sister, one of my true favs, was a few days after mine. She was in her freshman year of college, away from home. She’d sent me a “Happy Birthday” e-mail message and must have told her little brother to say something to me. I was so surprised that I just stared at him. My brain was searching: Could I really have made such an impression on this child that he would go out of his way -- I hardly ever saw him on our floor -- to wish me a happy birthday? 

In his sophomore year, this same little brother had blown me away when he stood alone on the auditorium stage, confident and all-of-a-sudden tall, and sang “The Impossible Dream” during the spring musical revue. I sat in the audience grinning and sobbing. Who knew?  

My good friend Jackie attended our graduation last week in an official capacity, representing the office of the county executive. She later e-mailed me. Sitting on the stage looking out at the graduates, Jackie said she had wondered which students I “might have taught, mentored, influenced, ‘favored.’"

Apparently, more of them than I had realized or remembered.

As a freshman, M.was quiet and unsure of herself. A sweet girl, she seemed always lost, as if she was looking for a group, a crowd, a clique that fit. Later that year, 911 had to be called after M., having found the wrong crowd, spent a few school hours getting drunk. As she was pushed out of the building in a wheelchair, she looked like a sick puppy. She recovered and matriculated quietly after that. We’d smiled at each other in the hallway, spoken, but we hadn’t gotten close. In her white cap and gown last week, M. came and stood close to me, still quiet and tentative. She hugged me and I hugged her back -- tight. We cried – again, to my surprise. She pulled back, looked me in the eye, and said in a shaky voice, “You were the best teacher."

And then there was J. Seeing him in cap and gown made my brain spin for a quick second. Was he a senior? I had seen him a lot this school year, joked with him, and harassed him about getting to class on time. A senior? How did I lose track? As a 9th-grader, J. could easily have been mistaken for a 7th-grader. Small and cute as a button. In a meeting one afternoon with his father, teachers, and guidance counselors, he resisted telling us why he had been so lethargic in all his classes lately. The adults around the table were talking about him, talking at him, and trying to get him to talk to us. He was uncomfortable. I went and sat next to him, smiled at him,  put my hand on his shoulder. He started to cry. What could this be about?  

“It’s the medicine,” he whispered, choking on his tears. “It makes me tired.” Then he broke down. Dad had known all along that the baby was being treated for seizures! He hadn’t said anything to us. Was he embarrassed? I was pissed that he had put the boy through that.

Hardest of all to say goodbye to last week was K., who, when she first came to my 9th-grade class, was about as friendly and guileless as a 14-year-old girl could be. I’ll never forget when she and her best friend R. asked if they could talk with me –- separately -- to discuss problems each was having with the other.
“She’s changing. I don’t like her new friends,” K. had said.

“She’s too immature,” was R.’s side of the story. “I can have other friends if I want to.”
Three years after all that drama, they walked up to me after graduation side by side, still best friends. Hugs all around. “Put my phone number in your phone now!” K. ordered me. 

There also was Keith, my ever-ready helper, the boy who over the course of four years never stopped telling people, "That's my favorite teacher!" I never met his mother, but his all-around niceness must make her proud.

And K.K. She didn’t like me when she was a freshman. Well, her mother didn't like me (so I feel safer using her initials). I don’t know if any student ever moved through high school with so much focus and grace as she did. An artistic soul, last year she shared with me her published collection of poetry and sketches.

On the way to graduation, I stopped at a traffic light, and waving at me from the driver's seat of the car in the next lane was the beautiful, smart, kind Zainab. The old, white Corolla reminded me that every kid doesn't get a new car "just for graduating from high school," as my father once said. Z's got college and other grander things to think about.

I am remembering the quietly confident Folasade, who waited patiently week after week for me to write her a letter of recommendation for college. I kept forgetting but finally got it done. She's off to Virginia Commonwealth.

Speaking of patient students. Before he graduated in 2009, Muhammad made a papier mache sculpture spelling out AFRICA. He gave it to me, and I kept it on display in the classroom. When Shanice -- a freshman with Senegalese roots -- saw Muhammad's sculpture, she begged me to give it to her. I promised her I'd give it to her when she graduated. She never let me forget. At the start of each school year, she reminded me. Two days after graduation, she came up to the school and picked up her long-awaited gift.

Last August, my 11th- and 12th-grade World History students might have wondered how I was going to go from teaching mostly 9th-graders to teaching their savvy selves. God knows I wondered. But who could have known that I would end up loving almost every day with almost every one of them?
No, I hadn’t wanted to teach upperclassmen, but not for anything would I give back this past year with my 11th-graders, whose willingness to learn and grow enabled class sessions that were consistently interesting, stimulating, instructive, and fun.  Nor would I trade a moment with the seniors, who gave me a new perspective on teaching. I am thankful for Jose T., Javier, Jennifer, Carmen, Marleni, Odaly, Jerome, Jose U., Alejandro, Jessica E., Chris, Shaq, Edgar, Daisy, Dilia, Hector, Victor, Juan, Ashley, Blanca, Ruby, Jessica L., Marlon, and Markino -- who got fussed at all the time for, that’s right, not working to his potential!

On her last day of high school, Jessica E. gave me a card. Was there a student more dedicated to her family than she? Occasionally, she had to take days off to accompany – and drive – her parents to the doctor. She also helped family members study for the U.S. citizenship test. I e-mailed her to say thank you for the card and to tell her how much I admired her. This is what she wrote back:
It was an honor having you as a teacher this year. I found no other way to show my appreciation than with a card written with words that came from the heart. I also have so much respect for you Ms. Matthews-Davis. No matter how childish the class can get you never give up, and set them straight. I admire the fact you don't let anyone disrespect you. Thank you for everything, and I will indeed see you at graduation.
This is to acknowledge all of these wonderful people -- not the insanity generated by the administration, the faculty, the staff, and the parents. This is about those who changed me, who taught me lessons, who made me laugh, who allowed me to teach them, who challenged me to get better at it, who needed me, who trusted me, who added a whole new dimension to this part of my life.

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