I work among elementary and secondary-level students -- grades K-12 -- before their great entry into "the adult world," where students eventually discover that there is no great Aha moment, that people are just blundering along doing their best, or less than their best; figuring out, or postponing figuring out, what it means to be a person. I do my best to equip them for this world, the only one there is, to encourage them in the warranted confidence that they do know how to live with integrity and openness. It's a dicey dance because I myself am not a master, only a fellow-student. And while I understand and live in light of the real developmental differentiation among children, teens, and young adults, I always hope for those moments in which the distinctions are relativised against our shared immersion in the human condition. Although most schools are not structured in a way that facilitates (let alone encourages) this, it can happen more often than you'd think.
At the end of every school year I am forcibly reminded of the one thing every one of my students has in common: they will not always be my student, and they have always been more than my student. My chance to do them good -- and to learn from them -- is ample, but it is finite. I have regrets over missed opportunities and times when it didn't go well. I thank God for the students who really seem to be wiling to talk with me as a person and not a strange tall alien figure whose role in their life gives him a weird authority they have to deal with. And because I am beset by my own insecurities, I wonder sometimes about some of them. What do they really think of me? By now, I am a little better at not projecting upon a student my own anxieties about myself, but even apart from that, the question can arise: I think they cared -- but am I making that up, because I want it to be true?
The last day of school is always a flurry of talking and tears and smiles and promises to be in touch and wishes of good luck and have a great summer -- and yearbook signing. I am always touched when a student asks me to sign their yearbook, and I earnestly try not to write canned messages, though I know they could look similar if you lined then all up. I also am grateful to the ones who write in mine, and there are always a few who I really want to be sure do so -- especially if they are graduating. Inevitably there are the ones that joke, the ones that write a perfunctory See You Next Year!, the ones who scrawl a cartoon (not always obscene), the ones who take their time to write something they mean, and the ones that just scribble their name. There are always a lot of those, the just-the-name-scribblers, and it surprises me, but I don't think of myself as deserving more -- though I sometimes hope for more.
This year there was a student (I'll call her Rose), with whom I've shared a lot of time talking about real things. Rose has had what I think can be aptly called one hell of a year -- a grandparent's death, an older friend's suicide, and her own struggles with intense anxiety, all while repeatedly doing incredibly competent work in the tech side of several school theatrical productions. This was alongside her usual high academic performance, applying to various high schools, and the rest of middle-school life. We'd had many talks and a lot of laughing, but I didn't assume she thought of me as a special mentor -- though she gave me plenty to think about, and not just when, in philosophy class, she articulated a deep exasperation with the irreducibility of first-person experience. She's been important to me, and I wanted to make sure she signed my yearbook.
I caught Rose just as the graduating class was going to pour out of the school and head off to their celebration at a park. It was the last chance, so I took it, but I knew she must be feeling the pressure of needing to get moving, and the swirl of so many people to say goodbye to. She smiled and took the book -- I said hello to someone else in the crowd for a moment -- and then Rose handed it back to me. I said Thank You, we hugged, and off she went. That was all. It had been a very short moment. Well, she just signed her name, I said to myself. That's literally all she had time to do. I was glad I got that, and sad -- sad that I wouldn't have something more, some sentence or two that would remind me of her funny way of putting things, the special intersection of fluster and earnestness, of impatience both frank and mock-, and the vulnerability she sometimes shows, which together go into the sketch of her in my mind. But it was certain Rose had not done that. She'd held the book for maybe five seconds. She'd just signed her name. Oh well, it was my own fault for not finding a better moment.
I eventually got back up to the room where I was going to work for the day. I set up my laptop, I had some papers to look through. The yearbook sat to one side. I couldn't concentrate. Usually I wait until I get home, but I couldn't help it. I flipped it open, and there I saw, amidst all the others, the "HAGS" and the long paragraphs and drawings the single names, was hers:
Thank You.So much was packed into that moment. My own disappointment re-framed, my owning up to the ways I can project, the realization that this was the only message I had wanted, or hoped for -- the distillation of all the other ones I had imagined. She had found the only thing that needed saying -- not because I thought I had offered her such a tremendous gift that it needed to be acknowledged, but because the words Thank You are simply what there is to say at this time -- certainly what I wanted to say to her -- what I had said, in fact. And so small. It had taken just those seconds to write.
As I say, I am a fellow-student. Thank God for my teachers. All of them.