My last “regular class” files out the door upon the ringing of the bell. There are reminders from me to “Study for your final!” and slightly convincing reassurances of “I will…” in response. The door closes and the room is quiet.
28 years of papers. 28 years of projects. 28 years of plans. 28 years of posters. 28 years of laughter and sorrow; dreams conjured and dreams dashed. A long time to collect memories.
And now, it all has to be reckoned with. My private dumpster parked in the corner calls out to be fed. And so, the purge begins.
By the end of the day, the walls are stripped of all things “English,” and the dumpster is half-way full. I have not even begun emptying the filing cabinets. The sorting had left me spent — what to keep, what to discard. The worth of each item weighed, recollections replayed, voices from the past attended to. And still the Frost lines echoed in my head, “…and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.”
Finals begin. Students wander in and comment on how empty the room feels. They say it doesn’t look like my room. I couldn’t agree more. Perhaps, though, it is a good thing. When done, my room should be a blank canvass for the young woman who will be moving in. Knowing her, as I do, I know it will not stay blank for long. She is an intelligent, creative and well-read professional with a tender heart. She too is from this tiny part of the world and a former student of mine. I cannot think of anyone better to leave this room to. It will be all hers…and I know it will be more than just a room. It will be a haven.
Finals handed out…scratching pencils begin. I watch as they dive in, stopping only now and again to thoughtfully nibble the end of an eraser or stretch. They are both focused and relaxed — just the right energy for a final exam, if you ask me.
I have asked them to write a “reflective composition” on how they have been the hero of their own life this year…and when they have left themselves down. We have discussed heroism, differentiating it from celebrity, and tried to define the qualities of character in all the works we have read this year. I want to know what they have learned from both their failures and successes; I want them to consider how these lessons might impact them going forward. I want to hear their 8th grade voices one last time before we all go our separate ways.
There are hugs when they hand in their papers and file out the door. A few linger, attempting to squeeze a few closing words into their composition, when a young man approaches me. He usually makes me laugh with random comments and off beat observations. As he hands me his paper, I notice that he wears a markedly different expression, and in a voice that is suddenly sure and somehow older, he begins to reveal the thoughts behind his transformed demeanor. He has my full attention.
“As I was writing the composition, I found myself reflecting on a lot of things. I realized that every test we’ve taken this year has been thought-provoking.” All the time he’s speaking, I try to make sense of this speech. Am I really hearing this? My heart absorbs what my ears can’t quite believe.
This boy who had never seemed completely comfortable with adults at the beginning of the year, is earnestly looking into my eyes with a composure and sense of self I had never guessed existed within him. ” I started thinking about all the things I have left from the people who are now gone. ” He rattles off a few items from a friend who has moved away, something his mother gave him…finally, he gets to his grandmother’s rosary. His grandmother’s rosary.
“All the things we’ve done this year, this reflecting stuff, has helped me a lot. It’s been good for me.” He turns away. I give him a quick hug. He says, “It’s been a good year.” And he is gone.
I look down into the face of a student who is openly crying in the front row. She is wiping away the tears before they can drop on her paper. Two students from the back of the room come to me and hug me. We are all standing in this demolished room crying like babies. Their expressions demonstrate that they know the worth of the gift I have just been so graciously been given.
Eventually, they leave. I am sniffing my way through tidying the test papers into a pile. I hate to leave my room with my face all splotchy and my eyes red from crying, but if I don’t go to the bathroom now, I will not have another chance for three hours. I put my head down and start down the stairs when I make eye contact with a colleague. She comes to me thinking God knows what — somebody has died or something? “What’s the matter? ” Her eyes bore into me with concern.
As I struggle to recount the event, she breathes a sigh of relief. “So, it’s a good cry,” she says. I manage to nod, choking back the flood.
It is a very good cry, indeed.