Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Closing Time


Friday night, Banks High School held graduation ceremonies outdoors, in the football stadium, for the first time in many years, and all in attendance were very nearly blown away.
 
I mean that in the literal sense. Friday afternoon saw the winds begin to pick up, and by 6:30, when the band was setting up to play "Pomp and Circumstance," it was becoming an issue. I had had the foresight to buy two bags of clothespins. It was not enough.
 
There was a great deal of unintentional humor to the proceedings. Aisles and seating areas had been carefully roped off earlier in the day, but when I first went out to the field to set up the keyboard for the choir performance, all the pedestals holding up the ropes had tipped over. They were unweighted. This caused a major scramble on the part of the custodial staff to find ways to anchor the pedestals and prevent further tipping. When the band members first went out with chairs and music stands, many of them took their music as well--then had to chase it across the field, much to the delight of the spectators in the bleachers. Playing for the choir and conducting the band were a challenge, as both tasks keep my hands too busy to reclip pages after they've been turned. I played most of the choir's accompaniment from memory, with some improvisation thrown in, and the band had to play most of their music without a consistent beat pattern from the podium. They didn't have much attention left to watch me, anyway, tied up as they were in keeping their own music from coming unclipped.
 
The ceremony itself was laced with the same kind of humor. Robes billowed, mortar boards had to be clutched to heads, often flying off, and valedictorians kept a death grip on their note cards. At the conclusion of the event, when the seniors threw their mortar boards in the air, the cloud of hats landed several yards leeward of where it had gone up in the air.
 
The band was great about clearing all their gear off the field, and even stacking things exactly where I wanted them back in the band room. I lingered at the school for a short time, hoping to say goodbye to a few students, and did manage two or three; but the seniors had a party to get to, and as a result I was not able to say goodbye to three who mattered very much to me.
 
Today I was back in the bandroom, cursing the percussionists for treating the place like their own personal rumpus room as I spent the entire day sorting and stowing equipment, sheet music, chairs, stands, drums, harnesses, instruments, sound equipment, et cetera. And then I took one last look at the empty, all too quiet room, locked the door, and left the school.
 
The end of the school year is a melancholy time for a teacher. Working at the elementary level, I had so many students for such short periods of time that I was really only able to get close to those who were in the choir; and yet, it always felt poignant to me to put away all the instruments and teaching aids, lock the door, and hand my keys back to the secretary. Something I was unprepared for when I started at the high school was how much more concentrated time I'd have with my students, how much deeper would be the tutorial relationship, and how much more it would hurt when they were all suddenly gone, some of them permanently. It's like swimming for nine months in a rich sensorial environment, then abruptly being cast out of it into an unadorned cell.
 
It probably comes as no surprise that this evokes a Biblical reference:
 
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades... (Isaiah 40:6b-7a, NRSV)

So much that makes life meaningful is transitory. Some of the seventh graders I met at the beginning of the year have grown six inches. Freshmen who were in my high school choir were previously in my elementary choir as fourth and fifth graders. I didn't get to know the kids who were juniors and seniors this year during my previous stint at Banks Elementary School, but I have had two years to know them as young men and women, and saying goodbye to them--and in several cases, not getting to say goodbye to them--was very hard. My own children are in their 20s; one of my nieces just got married. Time, as the old newsreels said, marches on.

Tomorrow night comes another transition: Alex Milshtein, who was a goofy ninth grader with a cracking voice when I first met him, graduates from high school. In September, he starts college at the University of Oregon.

It's hard to believe that thirty years ago, I was on the brink of saying goodbye to these friends:

Some I would see occasionally for the next few years; some I would meet again decades later. One I would never, and will never, see again, for she was killed in a hit-and-run five years ago.
 
The grass withers, the flower fades.
 
The moment we are in will never happen again. We cannot freeze time. Even if we could, the outcome would be far less wonderful than we might hope. (My touchstone on this is "The Hellbound Train" by Robert Bloch. Look it up; it's a truly great piece of fantasy.) Life is about transition, change, transformation; without it, we would be inert. And we're not. We grow and change and have new experiences with new people. We're together for a time, perhaps even a lifetime, but not in a steady state. We all grow and change and eventually, we say goodbye to them, or they say goodbye to us, and the world keeps spinning, the galaxy too, stars being born and dying, the whole cosmos in a constant cycle of birth, growth, decay, rebirth, world without end.
 
All over the world, young adults are graduating from high school and college, and parents and teachers are embracing and releasing the bittersweet emotions that are inextricable from this phenomenon. It's closing time in classrooms, closing time in bedrooms that will transition to occasional haunts and ultimately to guest rooms, closing time in houses that it must finally be admitted are too big for the emptying nests that once needed all that space. Still to come are the new beginnings of the next stage in the cycle: a fresh crop of students who have now grown into the age group I work with, a new year of school for the child who still lives in my house, adjusting to the new experience of having a college student in the family. Beyond that, someday, may come the thrilling new experience of grandchildren; further beyond, the freedom of retirement.
 
The joy of closing time is that it is always followed by opening time. The mystery of it is that we can never know for a certainty exactly what form that opening will take. Every experience had for the first time is unique for the person having it.
 
Here's how that passage I quoted earlier ends:
 
Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31, NRSV)
 
Of all the poetry and passion to be found in the Bible, these words are among my favorite. I no longer know--and if I'm honest with myself, I never have known--whether there really is a cosmic Creator involved in all the minute details of existence. I do know that, as transitory as life is, as quickly as grass withers and flowers fade, it is perhaps the most resilient force on Earth, always coming back for more, growing, changing, evolving, renewing its strength, mounting up with wings, walking and running into whatever the next season holds.


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