The week ends on a high note. We have our Convocation ceremony, something started last year. My school is only six years old, and traditions are new to us. I have been here since the beginning, when we only had freshman and sophomores. Now, the building is full, and some of the faces I cherished have already moved on to college and life. Some are still searching.
The hardest part of teaching is the letting go. I tell my students, “You are my students for life.” I mean it, but the truth is when they move on–even to another grade, another English teacher–I never have quite that same connection. Time is so compressed in high school. They enter as children and exit as young adults.
I spoke with a colleague the other day, and the subject of teaching came up. “Why do you think we choose high school?” she asked. We had choices. Why not elementary, or middle school? I told her I never considered elementary because I did not think I could manage all those colorful corners for reading, math, and science–all in one room. I attended a small, Catholic school. We had one room per grade, maybe thirty to a class. Each year a different nun guided us, except in third grade when the one lay teacher embraced us. Her name was Mrs. Jasper, and she made each of us feel as though we were her favorite student. Whenever I think about teaching, I think of her, and my two aunts who were also teachers.
Middle school seems too chaotic to me. I know it was a difficult time for all three of my daughters. Also, my Catholic school went from first to eighth grade, so I had no experience with a separate institution for seventh and eighth. DC is moving away from middle schools, and I agree with the belief that those years are too fragile to be isolated.
I told my colleague teachers probably choose the place they felt most relaxed, most at ease, and teach there. She smiled and recalled how much she enjoyed her high school years. While I learned the most at that small, parochial school with those dedicated nuns from the Order of Notre Dame, I grew the most in high school.
I won this scholarship to integrate previously all-white, Southern prep schools. My classmates were not only white; they were rich, and the combination yielded some fascinating stories I will save for another day. What I will note is that the experience of being away from home at a tony boarding school helped shape my character and my expectations for the world and my role in it. I think we do the same thing at my school–at every high school.
For better or worse, we teachers serve as a powerful influence on our students. They come to trust our judgment about their relative worth and potential. I think many students drop out because the messages they receive are so dire and bleak. They leave to preserve their fledgling sense of self, not to sabotage it. We teachers have to be as careful with our words as we are with our content.
On Thursday and Friday, I had my debate students take notes while listening to hip hop hits recorded before they were born. I used Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not be Televised,” Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” and Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.” The students knew Flavor Flav from his cable shows, but not from his music. All the songs spurred conversations about the direction of music today and lyrical content, especially in light of our discussions about the power of words.
The lesson worked on many levels, and everyone came away with something. To me, that’s the goal of high school. We use life to teach it. The punctuation of appositive phrases is nice, but the importance of integrity is better. Some think these young people are already grown, maybe even menacing, but, to me, they are simply children pursuing happiness, and liberty, and life. The fact that I get to help them with that is such an honor, and the rewards are real and ongoing. I am not alone in that.
During the Convocation, the students take their old seats in the gym. The seniors sit in the junior section, the juniors in the sophomore, and the sophomores in the freshman area. Each section has the graduation year emblazoned on the wall. After a few words from the principal about growth and responsibility, the student officers of the Student Government Association command each class to “make some noise.”
As each class is called, they attempt to outshout all the others. Throughout all this, the freshman wait nervously huddled just outside the gym. Then, on cue, the Class of 2011 rushes from their old seats and races across the gym floor to their new place as seniors. They are ecstatic, wave hands, and high five the air. I take pictures with my cell phone. The juniors then flock to their new seats; the sophomores follow suit. Finally, the gym grows mostly silent, and the freshmen nervously enter and are escorted to their section where the “Class of 2014” banner waves. The students applaud these new members who almost always look too young for high school.
I look into their innocent faces and wonder which ones I will get to teach. I remember my first year when I was the ninth grade teacher. I think of all the students I have taught. Then I think about me and high school. My school had different traditions, but they were meaningful for me. I look at the faces of my fellow teachers. All are smiling and, I suspect, remembering, too. For a brief moment, as the football players are introduced before our first game of the season, we are all one school high off the fumes of youth. We teachers stand to the side and applaud. Then it occurs to me. We didn’t choose high school; high school chose us.