This weekend I attended my school’s graduation exercises. I enjoy the ceremony, but I can’t help feeling a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. As I watched the seniors process into the auditorium and onto the stage I wondered whether anything I’ve done this past year had really made a difference. Teaching is one of those professions where you don’t get to enjoy a final product. For the vast majority of these kids you simply hope that something they learned in class gets planted deep down in their minds and will surface at some opportune moment in their future. I am envious of occupations where you can observe the process made on a daily basis. There is a plan and if you follow it closely enough you experience the final product. Woodworkers, plumbers, and other types of builders come easily to mind. My frustration at the end of the year stands in sharp contrast, however, to my feelings at the beginning of the year. If teaching sometimes leaves you frustrated or wondering about its ultimate meaning at the end of the year, the beginning of the year offers nothing but possibility. I can’t think of another profession where you are literally able to reinvent yourself. There is that sense of excitement and feeling of lightness that all passionate teachers feel come the end of August. For me, this is where the sense of ethical responsibility shines brightest. If there is a sense of trepidation it’s over the fact that what you do in class matters. And the best teachers know that this can never be taken lightly.
One of my students who just graduated called me Sunday night. He was not one of the brightest students that I’ve ever taught, but he may be one of the hardest workers. This student struggled the entire way through my US History survey course, though he pushed himself on every assignment. I can’t tell you how depressing it felt to grade his tests during the first half of the year only to realize that with each grade his doubts as to whether he was fit for the academic rigor of the school only increased. By the third quarter I stopped worrying about his grades because I understood that ultimately it didn’t matter. This guy was going to work through it. By the end of the year he had earned a respectable grade and had made progress in every area of the course especially in the development of his analytical writing skills. I am happy to say that we maintained a positive relationship throughout. It’s difficult for me to relate to hard-working students as I was not a good student in high school. In fact, I was pretty much a disaster. My friends and I had a beach one block away and the closest casino three blocks from the high school. I may be the paradigm example of a "late bloomer."
I was very pleased when I learned that this student was signed-up for my Civil War class in the Fall semester. This gave us another opportunity to work on his skills. This class is writing and reading intensive, but I knew that the work load would not be a problem. I can’t say it was easy, but he managed to get through it and even earned an A on one of the final critical writing assignments. I can still picture his face when the paper was returned. He asked if the grade was a gift, but by the look on my face I think he understood that that would have been disrespectful of all the work he put into my classes. I don’t think I ever enjoyed putting an A on a paper before.
I was pleasantly surprised when I picked up the phone Sunday night. He thanked me for my support, but more importantly, for believing in him. I made it a point to say that "it is because of students like you that I teach." I have to say that it felt really good to get this call not just as a form of ego gratification, but because it makes it a little easier to fill in the void behind the question of whether any of this really matters.