On Saturday, I formally said goodbye to more than 300 of my co-workers at Kennedy High School who will, all in one fell swoop, find other jobs, schools, and branches of the military to occupy their waking life.
I call them co-workers because in the truest sense I work as a teacher with students much more so than my teacher colleagues. True, I supervise them, and there is undoubtedly a power imbalance between me, the employed adult, and them, the subjects of my employment. But when we’re both doing our jobs right, they check me back. They don’t let me slip, either.
High school students have no incentive to care about you or anyone else there. At a certain age, they really don’t even legally need to be there. And theirs are the still-developing brains of teenagers, impetuous and short-sighted. There is no pretense of giving a damn.
So, when you love them and they love you back? That’s real, unvarnished, to your marrow. There is a mutual respect and admiration that you know you have both worked to earn. It’s not to say that real, lasting kinships can’t be made in other workplaces, but given the transitory nature of modern employment, the grounds are not always fertile.
High schoolers are the best co-workers because when they invest in you and you in them, we are “all in.” The bonds are everlasting in ways I have yet to experience in other places of employ.
As a preemptive measure, you can count me out of the readymade narrative of “kids these days are coddled, shallow narcissists wrapped up in Instagram selfies.” This generation of young adults is entering into an uncertain future, one threatened by global warming, sky-high college tuition and stagnant wages, the unraveling of the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement. And yet they still strive, they hope, they pray in the face of those uncertainties that things might be better for themselves, better than what their parents or grandparents had. They press on with a conviction that ought to defy logic, but what else is left in life if there is no such conviction? In my day, we called this perseverance and these kids have it in spades.
When you teach high schoolers, you get to work with people like this. Every day. Each and every hour of every day. They don’t get TED talks or book deals. If we’re lucky, they might get profiled every now and then in the local press for their 15 minutes. But mostly they triumph in the shadows, in the margins, performing little feats of heroism to no fanfare. The ones working full-time to support their families. The ones checking out books from your personal library to read for pleasure. The ones fulfilling the promise that their parents risked so much to give them. The ones dreaming big when everything around them is clamoring for them to downsize.
And that’s what gets you up in the morning. Not the check, not the coffee, not the five hours of sleep the night before. You can be their sidekick, or better yet their co-conspirator for that hour if you’re cunning enough. You can do that for 187 days a year for up to four years per student. To my knowledge, no other field offers anything that sweet as part of the compensation package.
I sat with a few thousand other people at St. Mary’s University, all connected in some way to the emerald green-clad graduates. We sat rapt listening to Destiny’s valedictorian address. She stood towering over us, her expertly-crafted words lifting her diminutive frame, even as her voice quivered with nerves. I met her when she was a sophomore and she had applied to my fledgling newspaper staff. Her submission pieces were impeccable; she was already a better writer than most adults. She has always had a distinct voice, one of the hardest things to teach young writers. I don’t know how much of an impact I had on her as an individual teacher. She’s an autodidact and was probably going to excel even if she had a box of corn flakes as her teacher. Still, something got in my eyes and stayed there while she finished her speech to thunderous crowd approval.
We watched the top 10-ranked students highlight their mentors. One of them, Rebecca, chose me for this honor. I was humbled to say the least. Most chose family members, so to be included in such illustrious company was something I’ll always cherish.
Then my colleague Tom read the name of each graduate aloud, his amplified voice bellowing into the rafters, each student brimming with confidence knowing that this afternoon was theirs and theirs alone, the hollering of families and friends providing a call and response to each announcement. At my own graduation, the list of names was an interminable slog. But on Saturday, when Tom started announcing the “S’s” it hit me that this was going to be over soon.
This can’t be everyone. I’ve known some of these cats for four years; it can’t be over already. Start making up some names, Tom. Francisco Tellez. Sonic Meneffee. Jennifer McMullen. Anybody. Stretch this thing out a little longer.
And that was it. Caps thrown, tassels lost in the fray. Two hasty files out the door.
Outside, the young adults hurried to their families. Final hugs and Instagram selfies.
Before September begins, I’m going to have a bunch of new co-workers. They’ll have some mighty big shoes to fill. I know they’re up to the task.
Top image: Students of Kennedy High School’s Class of 2016 throw their caps into the air after their graduation ceremony on Saturday, June 4. Photo courtesy of Edgewood ISD.