Sunday, April 23, 2017

On the Occasion of Your Dispersal

Good evening.

I know, I know. It's Sunday night. Tomorrow morning will not unfold as Monday mornings typically do. At eight am tomorrow morning Senior Chapel will commence. I'm not sure how long it's to last, but I'm likely to cry a little bit, lose my composure, & then the day will slip away, & so I've decided to post tonight, on the eve of my final Monday with the seniors. 

The week that will soon unfold & then be gone forever is a week about which I have a lot of feelings. I have a brief story to tell, & then I think what I am going to do is share a letter. A month or so ago I began writing a letter to the seniors. I shared an expanded version of it with my AP students on Friday, & I will share the original letter below once I conclude my fascinating story.

This past Friday was a doozie of a day. I had a heap of make-up quizzes to give to students who were out with various spring sports earlier in the week. While make-up quizzes were being taken, as they were during the first three periods of the day, I encouraged the other students in the room to write any journals they may've missed this quarter, or study, or read Nineteen Eighty-Four, or do whatever else they might feel moved to do so long as they could do it quietly while seated in their desk.

With the room relatively silent, what became apparent was that there were some birds curiously nearby. At first I thought perhaps there were a few happily flying by my windows, chirping as they passed. But no. The chirping was incessant & in one specific location. A few special students momentarily had me convinced the source of the noise was not birds, but rather mice or rats running rampant in the ceiling above my head. I did a little jig as a shiver rippled down my spine, listened again, & returned to my original suspicion that the incessant noise was definitely being made by some mighty chirpy birds.

By third hour, I was losing it - my mind, my patience, my temper. At the beginning of fourth hour, my AP students arrived to find several young men standing on desks &/or stools, their heads poked through the ceiling tiles they'd removed in order to investigate. They confirmed the noise but could not visually locate the source. Not to be outdone, my AP students, once apprised of the morning's events, marched outside the building, hoisted a young man cheerleader-style up in the air, & at long last I received confirmation that there was indeed a bird's nest in the eave of the building. The young man dismounted & a discussion of killing the birds ensued for several minutes. As I headed back inside the building I overheard a Lord of the Flies reference & I smiled. English people, they are the best.

The chirping probably kept my emotions at bay most of Friday morning, but when I came inside after the nest-sighting, things began to fall apart. I handed each AP student a copy of the letter I'd written them. I sniffled through the rest of class. Then, then, as he was leaving my room after the bell a young man said, See you tomorrow. I said, It's Friday. My voice probably broke on Friday. I stepped out from behind my desk & gave him a hug, sent him along to fifth hour, & sat & cried a little bit, the sound of my sniffling & the baby birds chirping the only sounds in the room.

At some point during the bird-killing discussion, as I stood outside in the morning sun surrounded by teenagers who are simply some of the best & brightest people I know, I made a plea on behalf of the baby birds. I said, They'll leave eventually. It's inevitable.

I resisted the urge to seize the teachable moment, to point out the perfectly timed metaphor that was hidden in the eave of the building, chirping incessantly above my head all morning. I'll also now resist the urge to delve too deeply into hyperbolic language about leaving the nest & spreading your wings & soaring to great heights. I'll just say I know you're eighteen & you can drive & vote & some of you are so brilliant I've felt from day one there was little I could teach you, but all that notwithstanding, you are still babies in the grand scheme of things. Nevertheless, your time has come. You'll no longer be chirping in my ear constantly; the silence you'll leave in your wake will break my heart, but I am so excited for you & what's ahead. You can go now, stained with my tears though you may be.

Without further ado, a letter to the seniors:

To my first senior class:

First, I owe you an apology. This year has been a blur. It's been a happy blur, a blur of new faces and bright smiles and laughter, but a blur nonetheless. I've been a bit scattered, and there are things I'll teach your younger siblings I did not manage to teach you. You did not get the best of me, and for that I apologize. Often you got a frazzled, exhausted, caffeine-riddled version of me. If you find yourself in college bereft of necessary knowledge about the vast and incredible body of literature produced by the people of Great Britain, look me up and I'll help fill in the gaps.

Second, protect your future. I’m not going to give you a sex and drugs and alcohol lecture, but rather a warning that college - regardless of where you go to college - might possibly overwhelm you initially. Be smart. If you see yourself practicing medicine in ten or fifteen years, or happily married with kids, or all of the above, keep that picture in the forefront of your mind. You do not wake up one day and simply step into the life you’ve always imagined for yourself; you build it slowly, over time, by making good choices.

Protect your mind, your body, and your emotional well-being. Be a fierce advocate for yourself, and do not worry about pleasing a crowd. Be leery of people and activities that interfere with your academic pursuits or any other goals you have. It is better to be alone and focused than surrounded by a crowd that is heading toward a cliff. If you need affirmation, call me and I will lay it on thick. If you know you need a good lecture, come see me and I will yell and shake my finger. 

As someone a little bit older than you, I’m warning you that in these next few years it is easy to become lost, to lose focus, to make a few decisions that seem innocuous at the time but that could possibly negatively impact your future in ways you never considered. When I was growing up I heard countless sermons by a man named Ray Melton; he always used to say, "You might be done with sin, but sin may not be done with you."

Finally, understand and accept that the one person you can control in life is you. You no doubt have been and will continue to be affected by the actions and decisions of others, sometimes in negative, maybe even painful, ways. The control you have in such situations is over you. I was not supposed to be your English teacher your final year of high school; it was not on my horizon. More often than not life will not unfold as you assume or plan. This will be tremendously frustrating at times, but take my advice and remember that some of the best surprises are behind doors you never intended to step through. You all are a fine case in point.

I posted a snippet of this above; this is the full quote, taken from Jack Kerouac's On the Road:

"What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies."

To the OCS Class of 2017, from the bottom of my heart: thank you, I love you, and I'll be seeing you. 


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