"Carpe Diem." That's what is written on the side of the pencil I had attached to the bulletin board in my classroom. I rediscovered this phrase in June, when I took the pencil down at the close of another school year. My eighth-grade students had gone home for the summer, and I was cleaning up.
I've gotten into the habit of keeping a personal history bulletin board in my room. It's where I add cards, photos and objects I collect through the year that reflect the times and memories I have shared with my students. Over the two years I spent with them as their seventh- and eighth-grade social studies teacher, we reached both extremes -- the happiness and celebration of a birth, and the sadness and despair of the loss of a classmate.
When I first met my students in the fall of their seventh-grade year, my wife was pregnant. The kids and I practiced Lamaze breathing in class, and laughed at my Halloween costume, which consisted of a pillow, a maternity shirt and a button that read, "Due in December." We even had a "Guess the Weight and Sex of the Baby" contest.
When the time came, I returned from the hospital with pictures and stories of a tiny girl named Anna, just a few days old. These students saw a rookie father stumble into the classroom for the next three months, sleepy from nights of walking his hallways with his crying baby. My exhaustion showed; I would set things down and then forget where, and come in with wrinkled clothes or a mismatched tie. The new life in my house came with me into my classroom each day.
The following year our emotions came full circle. One winter morning, we learned that Diane, a student at my school, had been killed the night before. Her mother, sister and infant brother also died in one of the most horrible house fires our area has ever seen. The students and faculty somehow muddled through the day after hearing the news. A makeshift memorial formed outside Diane's homeroom. Messages were written, flowers were placed and kids gathered to share a common loss.
The kids organized a memorial for Diane. In the spring, we gathered outside as a pear tree and two forsythia bushes were dedicated to her memory. Our assistant principal reminded our students that while remembering the past and looking forward to the future, we should not forget the gift we call the present. The brief burst of bloom and color from the bushes will aways reflect Diane's life, so short but with such impact, just like the time shared with my students.
Over the last two years, my students and I learned of life -- real life. We experienced together the depths of sadness and the great heights of joy. Life lost and life begun: the essence of the human experience.
If students learn from their teacher, I have learned from my students. I am reminded of how resilient the human spirit can be and how beautiful our young people are. I loved being their teacher, experiencing life together and being reminded of all it has to offer, both good and bad.
Real life is living in the moment, enjoying the time we have now, with whoever we are with. That's what I did with my students.
So as the school year begins, I will again start my bulletin board from scratch. But I will hang a pencil on it first. One with a message on its side that says "Carpe Diem."
AL JAFARJIAN, a teacher at Orchard Park Middle School, lives in Cheektowaga.
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