A couple of weekends ago, I made a very short trip back to Memphis, my third in the two years since I left. The sole motivation for this trip was to see the first freshmen I’d ever taught graduate from high school. Of course, I got to spend quality time with some of my dearest friends as well, but it was the kids who drove my decision to go. Another added benefit of going to graduation was seeing former colleagues again. We keep up with each other on Facebook, but it’s still wonderful, obviously, to catch up in person.
I can’t describe what I felt, watching all those students parade into the convention center in their caps and gowns. “Proud” doesn’t encompass all the emotions. I saw so many kids I loved see their hard work validated, from the valedictorian whom I never taught but whom I had in homeroom to the boys in my algebra 6-7 period who made the day’s end just a little bit brighter that year to the girl who said mine was the only class she’d ever failed. I saw one of my swimmers graduate with honors in just three years, heading to a UT school on a full ride; I saw another deserving student receive a special award and bask briefly in the admiration, respect, and cheers of his peers.
I hugged and congratulated countless kids, forgetting all the times they gave me grief and remembering when they made me laugh and when they made me feel like I was doing my job right. I took pictures with them, faces beaming, diplomas in hand, college majors all planned out. I said hello to other students I had taught, siblings and friends of the graduates, and wished them well. I saw a face or two in the crowd, students who didn’t walk, but whose names were in the program, students whose stories I don’t know anymore.
As one boy walked across the stage, my friend and former colleague, another TFA alum, said something like, “He’s the reason I didn’t quit.” I don’t have a particular student to point to, but when I look back on my first year, especially, there were certainly students who stand out who made me want to be in the classroom and who made me want to be better for them. You know, I can say I went to work because I believed in every student, but there were those few who really made me get up every morning and be a teacher they deserved. Oh, there were mornings I would drive to school on Sam Cooper Boulevard and think about making a U-turn right back home, and there were afternoons I would dream about rewinding the whole damn day, but more often, there were times when one student could turn my whole day around because he stayed after school to get tutored or because she told me she learned something from my class.
I don’t know if the students realize this at all, how much they affected their teachers. Maybe to them, my coming back for graduation was just following through on a promise I made to some of them a few years ago, or just a fun trip back to Memphis, but to me, it also felt something like an expression of gratitude, of being there for the students who had, for better or worse, been there for me. For many, I’d been their teacher for the first half of their high school math classes. We had been together at the beginning, and it felt right that I was there to see them at the end.