Ascension and Pentecost – May/June
We had one class period to go before graduation. I had already decided that my Advanced Placement students would revolt if I dared to give them a final exam just a day after they had completed the grueling four-hour marathon designed by College Board to test their year-long effort to learn everything there is to know about literature! Not able to bear their glazed countenances and complaints of cramped fingers, I resorted to what all good teachers do at the end of the year – snacks and a movie.
So as Robin Williams stood on his desk before his baffled students and asked them to rip out the preface to their textbooks in The Dead Poets Society, my own scholars munched on M&Ms. Honored to be asked, I spent the next 45 minutes signing their yearbooks.
It may have been the darkened room, the comfortable silence among a community of learners who had become friends, or my tendency toward the sentimental, but I struggled to pen just the right words for each of my students. These simple lines must carry enough weight to invoke memory years from now. My mind drifted to the poignant and powerful muses of my own last years of high school.
I was one of those students who flaunted her independence. I could walk among the put-together popular group and yet peripherally enjoy conversations with the counter-cultural students of the 70s who hung out in the parking lots. My best friends were those I made in my World Literature class, the ones who also were into creative writing, the ones who worked on the yearbook, the ones who hung on every word of our teacher and adviser – the omniscient Mrs. Doerfler. When we began to take ourselves too seriously or not seriously enough, Mrs. Doerfler would simply raise an eyebrow. That wordless look either grounded us or nudged us to shed high school inhibitions and release our collective energies. Mrs. Doerfler was the teacher I aspired to become.
The yearbook I still keep front and center on one of our bookshelves at home is not my senior annual, but the book from my junior year, the one entitled Legend ’77 from Brookfield Central High School in Brookfield, Wisconsin. The inside pages welcome students into the “Magic Theater,” an allusion to the house of mirrors in Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf. There, a person could go to find his past reflected in a series of images, and then explore the possibilities for change that would affect his present and future.
In 1976-1977, I lived for Yearbook (with a capital “Y”) as a member of the editorial staff. My task was to interact with the narrative that wove its way through the book. The introduction: “This book is a magic theater, a theater of the mysterious, playful, and tender moments, of the possibilities for change in our mutual and separate lives here at school; a magic theater for one year, for whatever value it may hold in our collective memory.”
The end, written by our chief scribe Anne Hughes: “We lived at school and we lived our book. Perhaps most important, we lived our theme. We were and are changes in ourselves, constant metamorphoses, each of us half clown and half genius…we are all of us, and this book is each of us.”
Only when we are in high school are we allowed to be so pithy, so dramatic, so in love with possibility.
It is this possibility that I wish to impart as I sign my name to the messages I write to my students. During the last five minutes of class, I turn off the movie. I ask which of the novels and plays we read that they will “carry with them” when they leave AP Lit. Surprisingly, their responses are diverse. My romantics cite Pride and Prejudice,while those who enjoy the darker gothic side of literature noted Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein.One student mentioned Waiting for Godot,the existential play I saved for the end of the year when I knew students were focused more on questions than answers.
Interestingly enough, Waiting for Godot, was the play that I most remember from high school. A large photo in Legends ’77 memorializes two of my classmates reading from Samuel Beckett’s script. Even better, the last page of my yearbook includes this tiny excerpt:
Gogo: We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?
Didi: Yes yes, we’re magicians. But let us persevere in what we have resolved, before we forget.”Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot
I pray my students will forever remember not only the existence, but the essence of their high school years. I know I will.
Graduation celebrations have a way of tying all the loose ends of high school together in one very beautiful package. The beauty comes not from the celebration itself, but from the richness of the odyssey. In fact, Homer, the author credited for sharing the epic poetry found in The Iliad and The Odyssey, gives us this philosophical gem: “The journey is the thing.”
That “thing” is the culmination of hard work, of persistence, of failure, and of success. All of this is represented symbolically in the diplomas we frame and hang on our walls. One of our school’s recent graduation speakers noted that although a high school diploma is an important milestone, it really signals another new beginning. With that beginning comes the responsibility to work hard and to live and to love in the best way we can. To this generation of young adults, our speaker admonished that the best advice might be to put down the cell phones and get to work!
Each time we celebrate a graduation, I feel that everyone in attendance experiences a moment of completeness and transition. It is the students who receive final high school transcripts, but their accomplishments have been predicated not only on their individual hard work, but on the determination of others. Parents especially need to know they have had a part in earning the “credits” of their children. Teachers have the benefit of facilitating the learning process – and in the end, understand implicitly that they have imparted knowledge and more importantly, they have gained knowledge.
Jokingly, I say that during the final weeks of school, the seniors make it easy to say goodbye. But that is not true.
Although they appear to barely keep their heads up as they plod through research papers for history classes, complete lengthy math study guides, and take one more science test, it seems to hit them all at once that high school is over. At that juncture, they also test the waters of rules they have been compelled to follow for the past years – defying the uniform code, “forgetting” to shave in the morning, and ignoring the tardy bells.
However, I can attest – as well as many of our teachers – that the seniors are quite reticent about saying goodbye. And so are we. “This time of year makes me very sentimental,” said one of our school’s math teachers, noting that after spending so much time with his seniors that it is very hard to let them go.
I agree. I remember one of the seniors who came by my office and started chatting about his high school experiences and his goals for the future. We spent more quality time talking in that 15 minutes than we had collectively during the past four years.
Another teacher, who had known and followed nearly a dozen of our seniors since they were in kindergarten, said one of her former students asked her what she would teach when she followed her to college!
Homer’s words hearken back to the 8th century B.C. His philosophies touched off discussions by his successors. Plato, Socrates, Aristotle…all of whom persisted in defining a meaning in life and purpose. We are destined to carry on the pursuit of learning, even in a world complicated by how we go about doing that monumental task. Today, our classes are held in rooms replete with wi-fi and smart boards as opposed to large columned amphitheaters on the hills of Greece. But just like those who came before us and will follow long after, we continue to search for that “thing.” It is time to place another yearbook on the bookshelf.