Desale is in the fourth grade. While I can't speak for how he is in his general education classes, I know that he loves learning about music, and is always the most attentive student in the room when I'm teaching. He also goes out of his way to ask me about music outside of class. He's outgoing without being chatty, readily engages teachers in conversation, and is not shy about asking me to play a particular song over the PA during my morning gym duty. Two weeks ago, I started the fourth grade's second recorder unit, teaching them to play "Iko Iko," a New Orleans Mardi Gras song that just happens to be Desale's favorite. Uniquely out of the entire fourth and fifth grades, he began bringing his recorder with him to that morning gathering time (when 2nd, 4th, and 5th graders all wait to be picked up from the gym by their classroom teachers) in hopes of getting some extra coaching from me.
This morning, Desale's family flew out of Portland for an extended vacation in Eritrea, their country of origin, so yesterday was Desale's last day. He had told me this in advance, expressing his disappointment about not being able to learn much more on the recorder. Two days ago, during a special all-school recess, he walked over to me and told me he was hoping next year to be able to come and see me during lunchtime to work on the recorder with me. That's when I told him I won't be here in the fall.
So yesterday afternoon, after pushing through the music lesson to try and get all of my "Iko Iko" recorder arrangement into Desale's head, I said goodbye to him for the last time. I told him I'd miss him, and wished him a good time in Eritrea, the homeland he's never seen. He smiled, waved, and walked out of the gym with his rowdy class.
I'm going to be in a better place next fall: a dedicated music room, a class schedule that gives me more than twice the instructional time with my students I've had this year, teaching middle class children who, in my experience, are far easier to work with than the children of poverty served by this school. It's a setting that will give my talents and skills the time, space, and resources to reach their prime, and I fully expect to remain there until I retire, having the time of my life.
And yet, my heart is breaking.
There's no question that Desale has been one of my favorite students at this school. (And don't let any teacher ever tell you we don't have favorites. Of course we do. We just never admit it to them or their parents.) But notice I said "one of..." If I had to list all my favorites here, the list would have dozens of names on it, far more than in any of my previous positions.
Don't get me wrong, this has been a very difficult job. Starting with the spaces I've had to work with (a gym with no echo mitigation, half a classroom with a noisy computer lab on the other side of room dividers, what little space I can scratch out of a general classroom as I itinerate), continuing through the behavior issues of so many of my students, and going on up through unsupportive administrators at both the building and district level, working here has been like three years of teacher boot camp. I've had to learn to make the most of inadequate resources, to think on my feet throughout lessons, to manage enormous groups of children, to somehow manage to keep teaching, and keep children engaged, even as high flyers are melting down and overblown, gym-amplified recorders are damaging the hearing of all around me.
And yet, coming out of three years here, I love teaching more than I ever have. Part of what I love is the incredibly diverse makeup of the student body, a rainbow of cultures, languages, and skin colors like I've never seen anywhere before. What's most amazing about these children, though, is their genuineness: they know they need what I have to offer, and they're not shy about letting me know when a lesson is working for them--or when it's not. They're also not shy about expressing their affection to me: I've had more kid hugs in the last three years than in all the rest of my careers (and I'm including fifteen years in ministry) combined.
Desale was a wonderful representative of that large contingent of the student body who loved what I taught. On the roughest of days, a smile and a wave from one of these children could make it all better.
I've got less than a month until June 15. From now until then, there's going to be a cascade of goodbyes until I join the rest of the staff in front of the building and wave to the buses as they pull away. Then I'll finish packing up the music gear in the gym (I expect most of my personal teaching supplies will already be back in the garage, awaiting transport to my new music room in August), record final grades, hand in my keys and badge, and leave this place for the last time.
There will be some heavy sighs in the week that follows, probably some misty moments, maybe even some tears. They'll all be for children--even some of the high flyers. I gave them my best, and they gave back. I'll miss them, and remember some of them for the rest of my life.
And then, on September 6, I'll start meeting the next crop of students to win my heart, and it'll start all over again.