NOTE: If you are put off by wistful sentimentality, skip this one!
As Classicists, we all know the old tags about the flight of time and the transience of all mortal things. Yet it must also be true that Classicists harbor in their breasts something of a more conservative temper, a desire to hold on to what has long since passed. I used to think that college was the best time of my life, and have long worn those rosy retrospectacles in my reminiscence on those heady days, brimming with Romance and hope for the future. My twenties were a wash, and so it was perhaps natural that I placed the aurea aetas well in my past. But all of that is no longer true, as I realize that this past year as a teacher has been the richest one in all my thirty one years. Yet, all of this has morphed those old Classical sayings from empty cliché into profound distillations of the spirit of human life. No longer can I read the old tempus fugit ‘time flies’ or ‘as the generations of leaves, so too the generations of humans’ without them cutting at the very fiber of my soul.
I have never wept so much in my life. This Friday, I will say farewell to my senior class, the largest group of students ever to have stuck with the course all the way through Latin IV AP. I started teaching three years ago, so this is the last generation of students who began their Latin studies at my school with the old Latin teacher, and in some sense, this makes their graduation all the more poignant. I was a novice when I arrived to teach their Latin II class, and they – in that they had been there for a year – had the advantage on me. Yet they were also still very much children at that time in a way that the jaded and cynical 3rd and 4th year students were not, so they imprinted on me much more. After these students are gone, an entire generational memory will have vanished entirely as they drift apart to lead their separate lives. And, though I will still remain as the glue which links the students of all four levels, an important and defining cultural touchstone in the experience of the school will be lost forever.
I cried thinking about this loss by myself. I cried when two students said that they would die for me. I cried when I gave them a speech before the AP test. I cried at our Latin Club meeting when I told them how much their work had meant. I cried when one of the freshmen gave an impressive speech and I realized that I would be dreading her departure in years. I cried when another student gave a speech in which she claimed that all assembled knew that I was ‘so much more than a teacher’ to them. In my overwrought state, I cried more violently and hysterically than at any other point in my life as I thought about all of this taken together. I am choking back a tear as I ramble on about all of this. And I know for sure that I will be unable to make it through 2nd period this Friday without some torrent of lachrymal effusion. Never have I felt so much with such intensity.
These students are not dying – they are leaving the narrow confines and shallow pettiness of high school to do great things, and though I feel a sense of terror at the screaming decay of our world every time I read the news, I cannot even fathom the depths of the wellspring of love and hope in my heart when I think about these kids I’ve taught for years. Yet, for all of that, the feeling of anticipated loss has already thoroughly devastated me. My favorite student (please, gentle reader, do not pretend that you think it possible for teachers not to develop favorites) sits every morning in the alcove down the hall from my room, and I see her every morning. How many times this year we had this exchange,
“Mr. Robinson, do we really have a quiz today?”
-“Uh, do you not want to have a quiz?”
-“Alright, cancel that then.”
The more traditionally-minded might think that consulting student inclinations at the last minute when planning your class period is an affront to educational decency, but these fuddy-duddies can eat a fig. I love these kids, and this was Latin IV – by this point we have such an understanding that I barely need to function as an authority figure anymore.
In any event, seeing her in the alcove is ritual, and what gives more solidity and comfort to our lives than the pleasant rituals which we contrive as palliatives for the incessant monotony of minor struggle and inconvenience throughout the day? It feels like just yesterday that I first read her name from my roster, whereupon she asked to be addressed with a nickname which has stuck for three years. After Friday, she will be gone. It feels like just yesterday that I kept thinking that one of my students was named Luke. He forgave me the transgression, and even planned to drop athletics to stick with AP-track Latin with me if his coach forced a conflict. After Friday, he will be gone. Another of my students is a class-clown beyond compare. Just see how he pulled the age-old prank of “Slashing” the tires of one of our buses when we went to the state JCL competition last April:
He is as far as I can tell an absolute genius, and has never ceased to make me laugh, as when he suggested that the name of Aeolus’ island in The Aeneid be rendered as ‘Vape Nation.’ His humor has brought joy to my life, and I always indulge his wild digressions in class because he never fails to entertain. After Friday, he will be gone.
After Friday, they will all be gone. I know that I will still hear from them, but everything will have changed. What is a teacher, anyway? I feel a deep paternal concern for these kids, but I am not their father. I feel a certain fraternity with them, but I am not their brother. After all these years, I feel a deep bond of friendship with them, but while I am their teacher I cannot be their friend. It is the curious admixture of all of these powerful feelings which makes the love I bear them so profound; yet it is the fact that I cannot actually be any of those things for them that makes Friday feel so fraught with dread and terror.
There was little permanence in my own childhood, and I moved away from all the dearest friends I had, never to see them again. Perhaps this taught me early on that all relationships are, in some sense, ephemeral. Moreover, the death of my first Classics professor last year forcibly impressed upon my mind that the heady and golden age of exciting and exploratory youth has, for me, come to a close. Several of my former teachers now lie in the grave, and I have come to fill the didactic chair for the next generation. How can this have happened? How did I arrive here, swept in by the rapid tide of time, without noticing the profound change? Who the hell am I, that students should look to me for guidance?
On the day of the AP test, I set out to give my students an encouraging pep talk, but instead lost my composure as I told them how much I loved them, and how much they had improved my life. Several of them had expressed concern about disappointing me on the exam, but I wanted to assure them that the test was just a punctuation point in the book of our experience together. I ought not to confess it to them, but I don’t care about the exam and I barely even care about the Latin at this moment. They will forget their declensions and conjugations for sure, but I know that they will remember my wild digressions, my absurd anecdotes, and my cringeworthy puns. High school is miserable for any intelligent, mature, and introspective student, and though I love Latin, I care far more about my students and their ability to live a happy and meaningful life. The only problem is that, in order for them to do this, I must bid them farewell.
To be sure, I have fantastic students in my lower levels to keep me going – I love this year’s freshman class more than in any previous year. Yet it will never be the same, and I realize that I am approaching a moment – a real discrimen – at which everything in their lives and in mine will change, and a particular feeling, an exceptional localized Zeitgeist will be lost forever, retained only in our increasingly hazy and spotted memories. Does teaching really hurt this much? I suspect that my colleagues have an easier time of it because they only have these kids for one year. Last Fall, I thought that I only had one more year of teaching left in me, but the exceptional closeness of the senior class and our Latin Club changed my mind entirely, and I now feel that I could commit to this for life.
So I realize that, much as the children with Frosty the Snowman, my grief will be renewed in a regular cycle every year – this one will, I suspect, be one of the hardest. I am unmarried and have no children of my own, so these students receive the full measure of my love and emotional engagement. This Friday, I will be devastated. After Friday, that alcove in the hall will be empty, a symbol of the desolate emptiness in my heart, a hollow chamber waiting to be filled with the spring of love which only begins to flow in fall.