observations and opinion
Our memories of school, as with all things past, become somehow both pale and rich as time goes by. The details grow thin, like old lace worn away but, in the absence of detail, impressions – atmospherics – become richer. So it is on the Last Day of the Year.
The commonplace trope about the end of the school year, is that kids feel liberated – bursting from the gates like 3 year olds in the Preakness. Certainly my kid, on this last morning of grade 9, shows no signs other than exasperation that the damned school term has dragged on as long as it has.
“Don’t you feel a little sentimental this morning?” I asked. She shrugged and told a warm anecdote about two sisters who grew teary-eyed yesterday at the prospect of winding-up their school career together. She was kind about it, but remote; if there is word for the opposite of verklempt, she embodies it. When asked what her plans were for tomorrow morning, the answer was simple: “sleep in.”
That is not how I remember this day, decades back. My grade school career was nomadic – four addresses and six schools through grade 8 – and combined with my deliberately feigned indifference, this made for friendships with shallow roots. There wasn’t much that touched me, or that I could not pretend not to feel. But that changed in June.
During the school year, I kept largely to myself and indeed, I have almost no memories of friends in those years. Typically, my feelings were all bound up in a girl: I fell for one at different schools in each of the even numbered years: Lynn Ann, Andrea, Anita and Kathy, if you must know. That tradition actually started in Kindergarten, when I ran up to a girl and kissed her after school. She decked me with one punch in my face. I hit the sidewalk and laughed – my first memory of being amused at my own predicament.
But the end of school was no laughing matter. On that dreaded last day, every moment became charged with terrible finality: the last day we would walk though that classroom door, the last time we would stand and sing the anthem with that teacher, the last recess. Suddenly the whole miserable experience of school became incredibly important, lit up with significance hitherto unfelt and unknown. It always surprised me and it always pushed me to the brink of tears – a very inconvenient state for a school boy.
In retrospect, this curious pattern found some logic: it was a lonely planet and indeed most of the time, life hung ‘round my shoulders heavily. These people at school, these strangers – classmates, my homeroom teacher – who I knew only briefly and not very well – were the part of the world that was no burden. They were amazing, really: smart, funny, organized, seemingly untroubled, sometimes even kind, rarely anything but good. They were the light in my life, even if I couldn’t see it.
In the wonderful “To Sir with Love”, young teacher Sydney Poitier brings a level of dignity to his classroom crowded with under-privileged, messed-up slum punks. Against all expectations, the students come to see that his discipline was a form of respect, his wit a form of affection, his disappointment in them born of seeing their potential. It is a sentimental thing, but I think a true one, that kids – especially those with no other safe harbour – invest hugely in their teachers, even when they don’t realize it.
Most likely this morning, this week, this month there are kids in all grades of school everywhere – quiet kids, loners, junior iconoclasts, maybe even kids who are trouble – whose hearts are breaking, but who don’t understand why. They have forged a bond for a particular teacher, perhaps the one adult in their world who makes any sense to them. It can be a wrenching loss.
Kids may be chippy, childish and churlish, but all that does is make it harder to know why they feel, what they feel. And if they don’t see the invisible threads tangling them up with the other kids, they feel the threads snapping. It happens in June.
This morning we did our drive, listened to our radio show, shook our heads at the celebrity news of Kanye’s birthday party and pulled up at the school at 8:01 a.m. The kid – calm cool and collected – gave me her customary nod and walked in the door, hauling a backpack, a bag of clothes for El Salvador and a sack full of textbooks. Other kids rambled in alongside her. Just another day in high school, I guess, but you wonder if somewhere inside – inside the kids, inside the building – a teardrop or two hangs ready to fall.