graduation

Favorites

My first year of teaching, I somehow ended up emceeing eighth grade graduation. I made a rookie mistake when introducing the class valedictorian: I admitted that she was one of my favorites. I knew that teachers aren’t supposed to have favorite students any more than parents are supposed to have favorite children. We do have favorite students, though. We’re human beings, and can’t help it.

What a lot of students don’t get, though, is that there’s not always much correlation between the students who are good at school and the students who are teachers’ favorites. It is definitely easier to get along with students who behave in your class, who get all their work turned in, who are respectful when they have questions. That stuff does matter, but personality matters, too. I’ve been pretty fond of students who think I dislike them. (They think I dislike them because they’re frequently on the wrong side of 70 in my class.) One of my favorites from this year actually ended up completing English IV in credit recovery.

(Please don’t ask me about credit recovery. There will be ranting.)

Graduation was last week. It was my third at this high school. (Almost) all the seniors I had this year for English IV and AP Lit crossed the stage. So did students that I’d had for English intervention, including the student who called me Mister Doctor Coach and a student who, as a sophomore, wrote me a thank you note and said that I was her favorite teacher. In that note, one I think she had to write for JV basketball, she explained that my class was the first time she had had a favorite teacher. Early this year, this student and a friend would swing by my class at the end of the day and hang out with my really small ninth period class.

Crossing the stage at graduation, she cried. She was supposed to smile with the school board member handing her the diploma folder, but she couldn’t quite manage it. I don’t know if she managed the “happy just got my diploma” picture that the venue took of every graduate to sell later. (The diploma folders are empty, by the way. Students have to come get their diplomas from the school the next day.) I do know that, when I finally tracked her down in the happy chaos outside the venue, she was smiling, and I was the choked up one when I told her I still had that card.

I do get choked up. Not for everybody, but for students like this one. Students like the one who faced incredible mental and physical health challenges all year, the one for whom I worried more about survival than graduation. Students like our valedictorian, who is one of the smartest and most humble students I’ve ever taught—and one of those exceptional individuals who has overcome the socioeconomic odds. He’s off to Yale in the fall. And some students I get choked up for for no specific reason at all.

I get choked up because I care. And it’s because I care that it matters so much when students tell me that I’m their favorite teacher or that my class was their favorite or the first time they enjoyed English.

It’s not an ego thing—not exactly. I’m not in competition with my fellow teachers. We don’t collect the nice things students say about us and go down to the lounge and have a competition about who is most loved…no more than we have competitions about who’s said the meanest things to us this year. I’d be happiest if my students liked all of their teachers.

The thing I dig most about hearing I’m somebody’s favorite teacher is that it means I’ve gotten through to them. Whether it was with a stray comment or checking in with them after they’d been out sick or, heaven forbid, some actual bit of class content, I’ve gotten through to the students who say I’m their favorite. There’s a connection there. I made them care, at least a little, about learning something, about dealing with the adults they’re becoming, about responsibility or humor or some part of being human. It also means, most of the time, that the student’s made a connection with me.

Successful teaching is about making those connections. It’s not just about content, which is where administrators and legislators so often go astray as they pine for the fjords of the quantifiable. When a student says I’m a favorite, it means I’ve done my job, no matter what the numbers show. Really, when those connections happen, the numbers get better anyway.

It’s one of the most satisfying things about the end of the year: the students stopping by (in some cases sneaking back in) to say thank you and goodbye and have a good summer. I love it when it happens for me, and I love seeing it when it happens to my colleagues. It’s one of the reasons teaching matters, and one of the reasons I’m happy to go back and do it again next year.

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Gradations and Graduations

It’s May, the month of yes you may:

Hedonism fits the season, but it’s also a month full of potential anxiety triggers for postacs: a friend’s tidy new Yale diploma (written in Latin, because Yale), a conference roommate’s new tenure-track job, lots of Facebook pictures of people in wizard robes and octagonal hats. (The square ones don’t pack the same emotional punch.) Graduation season: a time for postacs to wonder what graduating actually got you (if you finished) or what it might have gotten you (if you jumped off the ship before it finished sinking).

My own relationship with graduation has always been ambivalent. I (sort of) dropped out of high school so I could got school overseas, but my first year in Wales ended early enough for me to attend my class’s high school graduation. I spent part of it sitting with another non-graduating ex-classmate. Mostly, I remember the blue plastic bleachers and watching the 83 graduates while mentally claiming all the awards I would have won if I’d stayed. Afterward, I went to the all-night party at the bowling alley and won some door prizes. I’d said my goodbyes the previous year—my junior yearbook was full of the clever and “clever” ways 16 year-olds say goodbye. It was, at best, a footnote to a transition I’d already made.

When I graduated from Macalester, it felt like a big deal. It remains the only graduation I’ve ever walked in. I got to wear the special gold summa cum laude tassels. I doubtless undercut the effect by wearing my beat-up Indiana Jones hat and the really hideous goatee I sported all senior year. It was May in Minnesota, an absolutely gorgeous time of year that you appreciate all the more for the winter you escaped only a few weeks earlier. The pipe band played us in. Garrison Keillor (who lives down the street from the school) gave the best graduation speech I’ve ever heard. (It boiled down to “ask your parents for money and go do something stupid while you still have a chance.”) I had a girlfriend (whom I’d eventually marry) and a summer of playing ultimate and studying early music ahead of me. It was a good day.

The reasons it was a good day had very little to do with the transition the occasion was supposed to mark. The weather was nice. My family was in town. I got to hear an entertaining speech. It wasn’t, though, like I was done being a student. I knew I was headed to Ohio to go write music. (I thought was going to Ohio to write music. That’s not exactly what ended up happening.) Plus, ceremonies are stupid and boring and it’s only the people who really matter.

Those are some of the reasons I didn’t walk for my master’s nor go to get hooded for my doctorate. Nobody from my tiny cohort graduated at the same time. The ceremonies were large and impersonal. The bigger reason was that my graduate degrees just…trailed…off. Both my thesis and my dissertation were completed at odd points of the calendar year, months before the ceremonies they earned me. Paying to rent or buy regalia seemed ridiculous. By the registration deadline for my doctoral commencement, I’d already decided to leave the Academy.

At the time, I just didn’t care. A year later, I wonder if I should have. I wonder whether a ceremony would have helped clean up the break with being in school. Dissertations trail off and overlap with employment and leave jagged edges. Maybe an afternoon in wizard clothes could have sanded those down. Maybe I should have had that big party I was promised “when I finished.” Those are the things I wonder when I see my friends’ pictures and announcements.

Graduation, like gradation (and grading, for that matter) is about steps. Literal ones across a stage. Metaphorical ones that provoke contorted analogies. The trick of graduation is that, if your really mean it, you have to keep taking steps. Some of my friends are now showing up on the professor side of the “professor and student” end of year photos. Others are in the more typical May photos of picnics and playgrounds and wildflowers. They’re all steps. Regardless of how we choose to present them to the internet, they matter more for the taking than their size.

Don’t sweat the wizard clothes.