SIDNEY — Being in the presence of young people each day is a blessing I could have never predicted. Over time, these young people become a part of my family. Often in conversations with close friends, I find myself having to clarify when I reference “my kids.” My friends ask “The three that live in your house or the ones in your classroom?” They rightly recognize that my students are my family too.
In that sense, I have 23 generations out in the world, and this year the 24th will graduate. There is no greater compliment or source of validation than when one of my students returns after several years away to tell me that the time we spent together mattered. They almost never recall a specific book, assignment, or conversation, but rather the sense of worth they felt from being challenged.
There is something about the passage of time that allows us to see ourselves with more clarity. About 10 years ago I set out to teach students this very concept through a letter writing project. The last assignment in my senior English class each year is to write a letter to your future self. I want students to realize the power in being accountable and marking the passage of time. On the last day of their senior year, students not only spend time thinking about their high school journey coming to an end, but more importantly they set goals for the next year.
Some students will enter the workforce, others will plan for college, and some enlist in military. All of them know that they will receive this letter in the mail a year from now. They write about the futures that they want for themselves. They write about their fears and anxieties. They make predictions about challenges and remind themselves of the grit and resilience they will need to acquire success. They set goals. Then, they address an envelope to themselves and hand it over to me. I keep the letters for a year. Each May, as we prepare for another graduation, I write a letter to my former students, tuck in it the envelopes from the year before, and mail them out. I mailed 96 letters today.
As the class of 2019 graduates, the class of 2018 will find a letter in the mail reminding them that a year can teach us things that individual days can’t. They will be reminded not to question their circumstances, but to question what they can learn from them. I will tell them again that there aren’t shortcuts to any place worth going. I will say one more time that we all get the same 365 days in a year so we need to consider them as currency and watch how we spend them. They will realize that time has a way of showing us what really matters.
In so many ways, this is the beauty of graduation each May. It requires us to stop and acknowledge the journey and how the days stack together to shape the life of a child into the promise of a young adult. This resonates with me every year, but this year in particular I have a brand new appreciation for the experience. My own daughter is a member of the class of 2019.
The teacher in me is typically ready for graduation each year. The mom in me, however, would prefer to hit pause for a few weeks and slow everything down. Perhaps this is because I haven’t just lived each day of her senior year with her, but have enjoyed each day of the last 18 years with her.
In the busy days of her childhood it would have served me well to consider how quickly years filled with school assignments, soccer practices, and permission slips transform into pictures and memories. Preparing for her graduation has forced me to face how I have spent the time I had with her. So much life has happened.
She has seen the best of me, but more importantly she has seen the worst of me. I have not always juggled work, home, marriage, parenting, and everything else with grace. It has often been loud and messy and confusing. I have made mistakes. I pushed when I should have been quiet – I remained quiet when I should have pushed. I was too involved when I should have let her make mistakes, I let her make mistakes when I should have been more involved. Despite all of this, we have forged a relationship like no other.
She is ready for what is next, even if my heart is not quite there yet. After all, growing up is a not meant to be an exercise in perfection. It is messy and emotional and loud and worth it.
This year has been a long celebration of lasts. Graduation day means we begin a new chapter of firsts. It urges us to get quiet enough for a few minutes to reflect on where we have been with a grateful heart and look to where we want to go with a sense of hope and excitement. It means that we can take a few moments to consider what we want out of the next year. The class of 2019 put those thoughts in writing. The class of 2018 will receive their reminders this week. We all get the same 365 days. Whether we are celebrating the firsts of something or the lasts of something, whether you are a student from my classroom, from another school, or the one who lives in my house – I hope you make every one of them count. No matter who you are, remember there is a teacher in room E112 at Sidney High School cheering for you. Congratulations!
The writer lives in Sidney with her husband, Bryan, and three children Grace, Genevieve and CJ. She teaches Senior English at Sidney High School. This is her 24th year teaching English. This summer she will continue her work with the Ohio Writing Project through Miami University. She is a writer, thinker, mother and teacher.