Seniors at my school are done for the year. I have never taught a seniors-only class before, and this year I had four. Today, when I climbed the stairs to my classroom and passed the hallway where they usually gathered before the first bell, I found juniors already claiming the spot. But they all still seemed a bit tentative as they appraised the new real estate. I found myself missing my students.
Still, I like the traditions at my school. Two weeks ago, there was a ring ceremony unlike any other I had witnessed. After a series of songs by the choir, and a moving sermon by the school’s priest, each senior rose from their seat in the front center section of the auditorium and claimed a candle from a large table near the stage. One by one, they rose, relinquished the space they had owned all year, climbed the stairs to the stage with a lit beacon, and then gingerly placed it in the hands of a waiting junior schoolmate.
The juniors then descended the opposite stair and claimed a seat in the now-empty senior section. Seniors moved to the back of the auditorium. I kept thinking about how so many of my seniors had circulated around that space during their four-year journey, moving from the far left freshman section, to the far right sophomore, to the rear center junior, to the front center spotlight–and then out.
“So, how did it feel to see the distance you have traveled?” I asked them later in class. I expected effusive offerings, but the responses were decidedly muted. I guess they know when reflection is justifiably private. Still, I could tell they appreciated the meaning of the ceremony and their parting glance. They must have noticed how the juniors, or rising seniors, beamed all day.
Next to college, high school is probably the last time four years carry such weight and meaning. Maybe even more than college, the years between fourteen and eighteen carry such a wallop of emotion and growth. As a teacher, it makes me want to accomplish a fraction of that movement in the same amount of time. But such acceleration does not come without costs.
Unlike in years past, the seniors leaving are new to me. I did not get to watch their progression up close, and all my attempts to shrink them down to freshman year and grow them up in my mind were futile, even after reviewing those awkward first year yearbook photos. It just shows you have to take people where you find them and then relish the time you share.
Sadly, all the seniors will not be graduating on time. Some faltered just as they rounded the final turn. My colleagues and I never stopped yelling from the sideline, “Now is not the time to slow down.” But no matter how much we waved and yelled and gesticulated, a few just could not rise to the tempo. They are summer school-bound and will formally matriculate in August. In years past, I had made it a point to always attend the public school summer ceremony. This year, I will simply whisper a thanksgiving prayer.
I said that today to one young lady who stopped by to see me. Problems at school and home derailed much of her senior year, and she will be repeating the year at a new school next year. I never taught her directly, but I always enjoyed our conversations and kept looking for her face in the halls. She left in February and never returned. While we talked, I remembered how much I appreciated her generous smile and “old school” flavor.
“So what did you learn this year?” I asked her.
“A lot of things,” she said. “I learned you can’t lose yourself just because the wind is blowing.”
I laughed, remembering how much I enjoyed the way she put things. “I keep telling you you’re a writer. Don’t forget that,” I said. “What else?”
“I learned failure is a part of success. I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to this year, but I’ll still get there,” she said.
“Don’t forget that,” I said. “I have had some spectacular flair ups in my life. Blow outs in front of a crowd. Flat-on-my-face stumbles when I thought I was going to win. I’m talking loud farts in a quiet church moments.” We both laughed a good laugh. “But I’m still here and I’m still reaching,” I said. “And so will you.”
Later, on the drive home, I thought about the seemingly random moments in life that change things. I have been fortunate to have witnessed so many, starting in my own life. But, on the national stage, I have also seen my share. I just happened to be watching live television when Lee Oswald was shot, and later Robert Kennedy. I saw Neil Armstrong take those first steps on the moon, and I watched my grandmother dance as Dr. King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. In 2008, I listened as President-elect Barack Obama thrilled a crowd in Chicago while embracing the history.
Two days ago, Kentucky Derby-winner Orb failed to win the Preakness Stakes and keep Triple Crown ambitions alive. During my teen years, I watched as Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed made that achievement seem routine. Being young, I did not appreciate the wonder I witnessed. I assumed the accomplishment would repeat itself for years to come. Since 1919, only eleven horses have reached what has become an almost mystical distinction, and I got to cheer on three of them in the course of five short years. How foolish I was to assume moments like that would just continue naturally.
The wonder the young lady in my classroom–and all the eventual seniors I have taught and will teach–will discover in her life is the true relativity of time and the singular nature of the journey. The ending is the last surprise in a long series of unexpected pitfalls and breathless attractions along the way.
I guess the trick is to take it all in, allow the upward gusts to carry you, and try hard not to look away when the scary part comes.
As far as we know, this is our one and only ride–and no one really wants to miss a thing.