A few years ago, an English teacher at Wellesley High School in my home state of Massachusetts delivered a rather “special” commencement address on the occasion of Wellesley’s graduation. While the message of David McCullough, Jr.’s speech was very funny, very memorable, and merits frequent repeating (watch the speech here), it has actually been McCullough’s simple reminder about the definition of the word “commencement” that’s rolling around in my brain this past week.
“Commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. [. . .] life’s great ceremonial beginning. . .”
Indeed. To “commence” is to start– to begin. As we wind down another school year and prepare for our own “commencement” at the high school where I teach, it has occurred to me that much of the emphasis surrounding graduation so often has to do with what’s ending instead of what’s about to begin. Yes, of course, our kids will close their lockers for the last time, turn in their last set of high school textbooks, buy their last school lunches, and pull on a PE uniform for the final time. In dwelling only on these, though, aren’t we really ignoring the titular intent of that final ceremony? So much, for these teenagers, is about to begin. Why is it, then, that with all of life rolling out in front of them, we choose to focus instead on the comparatively minuscule four years just past?
I have a theory. What is past is known. What is in front of us we can only guess at. Certainly, our students have visited their universities, many know what they’ll be studying, and some have interviewed for and accepted jobs, but what all of this will really be like is only theoretical. There’s no mental photo or emotion to attach to something that is only, at this point, an expectation.
In contrast, we know exactly how to feel about what we’re leaving behind: the kind lunch lady who always knows our name, the pain-in-the-ass bus driver who delighted in making us run for it, the pacers we ran in gym class, the Saturday night circle of friends. We know what we’ll miss, and we know what we’ll skip away from with glee. What we’re heading toward, though? Not so clear.
In the early winter, Mark and I started discussing Henry’s entry into kindergarten in the fall of 2017. A “commencement” for him, to be sure. After five years of heading to school with me (the last two with Zoe, too) and attending preschool just beneath my own classroom, he’ll be heading to full-day kindergarten one block from our home this fall, forty minutes from our current school. Henry’s new school day will start almost two hours after my current report time and end just forty minutes after I finish. At some point in our conversations about these logistics, it became clear that I needed to commence thinking about what the coming school year would look like for me— and whether it would be a “school year” at all.
In January, after lots of discussion (and household budget manipulation on Mark’s part), I formally requested leave from my teaching position. In February, my request was approved by our school board. I taught what is, at least for now, my last lesson on Friday. It felt decidedly like a cessation, not a commencement. Just like my students, I know very well what I am about to leave. There are some things about teaching that I won’t miss (probably the same political and curricular minutiae that irritate most teachers). However, there are many more things that I miss already, and I haven’t even left yet. I stayed until 4:30 on Friday afternoon. I don’t think I was ready to shut the door.
So many of my coworkers are so incredibly intelligent. My two-year-old is fantastic company, but I’ll miss the quick wit and humor of our office. I really don’t know what life will be like without high school students to teach. I love teaching teenagers; talking and working with them every day has made it possible for me to always know that despite what every social media curmudgeon seems to suggest, the kids are truly alright. What really has me focusing more on the end of this former chapter than the start of the next, though, is that I’m afraid that I won’t really know the main character anymore once I turn that page. She has always been a teacher– appreciated and validated for that part of herself. It made her feel important. Who is she now?
My classroom desk is empty now and the cinder block walls are bare. For the first time in a decade, when I leave after my last exam, I’ll turn in my keys. In the past week, several people have asked me how I feel– if I’m excited. Right now, it feels strange more than anything. I’m grateful for the opportunity; staying home with one’s children is a luxury that few parents in 2017 are afforded. I’m hopeful that staying home will allow me to do things as a mom that I wasn’t able to do for my family while working. I know the time with my kids is precious, and I plan to savor it.
Still, what I’m “commencing” with is a little unclear to me. How will it feel? How will I define myself? What will I be good at?How will Zoe and I spend our days? Will I teach again and when? How strict a budget can we keep?
I hope you’ll follow along as I figure it out. We can commence together.