Certain songs always make me sad: "Taps," "Climb Every Mountain," "Pomp and Circumstance." It's the latter I'm beginning to hear in my head lately. I'm graduating, but not from high school or college. No mortarboard will grace my head, or mar my hairdo. There won't be a ceremony. But I feel a definite graduation coming on -- I'm retiring from teaching.
After what seems a lifetime, I'm leaving those lively halls filled with cries of delight or embarrassment, snatches of song, books thumping to the floor, lockers banging and clanging, whirring combination locks, shuffling papers and feet.
I'll miss the music of those halls, along with the quips and greetings of students, their smiles of accomplishment or air-pumping "Yesss" celebrations, and my eternal joy at their curiosity about things, school-related or not.
Cynics know there are things I won't miss, but like the pain of childbirth, negatives fade with time. I've already forgotten the worst class I ever had, or the student who drew an ugly picture of me to use as a dart board. (Hmm, maybe I haven't.)
What I will always remember is my early days as a new teacher, stricken with stage fright, wondering why students would even listen to me. Most days, they didn't. But there were those occasional discussions when an idea would finally take hold, philosophies evolving in front of my eyes as we gleaned ideas from literature.
"Death of a Salesman," "Oliver Twist" and "Hamlet" broadened our world as words and actions jumped from the pages into our lives. Who couldn't relate to Polonius' famous line, "This above all -- to thine own self be true"?
Then, serendipitously, high school downsizing transported me to the magical land of fifth grade, where my "teacher face" really worked, and typical discussions centered on whether dolls came alive at night while children slept. They wrote "Life Lessons from the Fifth Grade" to leave for future generations, and I was afloat in the daily effervescence of tiny voices with big issues: lost lunch money, a new Cinderella pencil, purple sneaker laces. How did little Michael manage to squeeze under my podium? And why was I delighted every time he popped out, singing "Gotcha!"?
Ultimately, the decision to stay in middle school was easy. Seventh- and eighth-graders gained a hold on my heart that is hard to explain. My nonteaching friends never understood it; my students' own parents didn't, either. But I just loved them, excited by their warmth and honesty. Moody, impulsive, equally quick to laugh or melt down -- the quicksilver persona of the middle-schooler has fueled my enthusiasm for the last 20 years of my teaching life.
Exhaustion is often the rule, but so is satisfaction and joy. There is no power like the ability to make a student laugh on a bad day, or to cause that light of understanding to ignite in a child's eyes.
And so, I graduate, along with my eighth-graders, whose minds are not on the ceremony but the ensuing parties. For my baccalaureate, a series of fond goodbyes, the impossibility of expressing how much people have meant to me and the final closing of the door to a room that has been my personal oasis for many years.
To me, teaching was the most important job I could have had, helping others to love words and communicate clearly. I'll continue, as usual, devouring books, writing and, of course, talking. Words are who I am. Watch for me. I may be in a new place, but I'll be around.