Two days ago, on Friday, I drove down to Haines Point after class. It had been a good week. My seniors were busy putting finishing touches on their written DC Neighborhood Project. Teams of three or four had to adopt a neighborhood on the Metro line and then become tour guides. After completing a written paper and power point, where they covered everything from census data to typical expenditures to future development, they have to make a video and “present” the neighborhood. They are excited about that last part. I heard one group arguing about what songs to include on the sound track.
My tenth grade students received their graded Emmett Till’s paper back for rewrite. I had provided them with a host of tools to assist structuring their papers, and it showed. I was so proud of their work because they were. They had become writers, not just recorders; analysts, not just sponges pouring back.
During my last period, one girl said she had to speak with me. Writing, I knew, always made her nervous. We had met a few times after school to review the purpose of every paragraph and the dominant role of her thesis. She began to understand, to stretch, and it was a joy to see. She was learning and loved it. “What is it?” I asked. Her grade on the rough draft had been average, but she and I both knew she had walked a long way to get there.
“I want to thank you for something,” she said.
“My learner’s. I passed the test and got my learner’s,” she said with a smile all over her face.
“Congratulations,” I said. “You’ll be on the road in no time. But why are you thanking me? You did that.”
She grew quiet and then said, “You helped me. I never been much on studying and stuff, but you taught me how to take it slow and just do it. All those charts and things. I would have never passed that test without you. I studied for it and everything.”
“Sure you would have,” I said. “But thanks. Just do me a favor.”
“What?” she asked.
“Do not pull up next to me while driving. I will panic and hit somebody.” At that, we both laughed, and I knew when I left school I would take the long way home.
Even before I arrived near the Tidal Basin, I realized the blossoms would be gone. Just last week, the entire area burst with magic no wizard could devise. The limbs of the trees exploded with white and pink bubbles of art, like slivers of candy cane on a stick. It was peak time for the cherry blossoms, and the tourists were out in force near the usual walkways. Some had traveled from far distances just to taste the sight.
But further down at the Point, only locals gathered, most just fishing and seemingly oblivious to the sight. But those men did not fool me. It was impossible not to be captivated by the simple beauty of those blossoms, so tender and modest in their majesty. If you stared at them long enough, with the water as a backdrop, you could imagine a world without rancor anywhere, a peaceful place where antagonists settled their differences with a checker game and a cold brew. It reminded me of those late summer night hide-n-go-seek games when I was young and ached for the world and all the knowledge I could uncover. We played back then even after the sun had set and the street lights shone. We played and chased and imagined.
I had visited Haines Point several times that week, but now the blossoms were gone, except for a rogue blossom cluster on a tree limb or two, holding on to the finish. I asked my students about it once. Why create such beauty and make it last for no more than two weeks, sometimes less. Why gather all the power of nature, place it tenderly in a fragile blossom, and then give it only fourteen days to live–until the next year at the same time?
“If you think about it,” I told them, “our lives are something like those cherry blossoms. We each have a beauty some of us take for granted. In the scheme of space and time, our walk on this Earth is shorter than those blossoms. We need to make it matter, all of us. If you knew you only had two weeks, what would you do? How would you shine?”
“I’d eat,” said one rotund, young man known for his double lunches.
We laughed some more and went back to work. But I thought about that conversation again on Friday. Our time together in school is coming to an end. I can smell summer coming. I make a promise to use the time wisely. I still have some things I want to cover, a few more skills I want to teach. But, mostly, I want to savor the moments my students and I have left before they move on to other classrooms.
Of course, they come back to visit frequently. But it is never quite the same again. That daily, one hundred and eighty day space we share is fleeting but significant. From the day it begins, it is ending. Like the blossoms, we need to appreciate the miracle and handle it with care.
Teaching is God’s work too.
–Mark E.P. Roberts (teachermandc)