Saying Goodbye to Other People's Children

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A note from a fourth grader.

It's my favorite moment in one of my favorite movies: her work completed, the Banks family restored, Mary Poppins is just about to take off when the parrot head on her magic umbrella calls her out, chiding her for not acknowledging her own feelings, particularly jealousy of the father the children love more than their nanny. She responds that that's as it should be, and that "practically perfect people never permit sentiment to muddle their thinking."

I don't consider myself perfect, or even practically perfect. The most Methodist thing about me is my fundamental awareness of just how flawed I am. I've spent the last year having this driven home to me again and again as I've struggled to hang onto a job that was rejecting me. This was most true in my work with an especially recalcitrant bunch of fifth grade boys whose collective goal in music class was to get me to explode. I tried strategy after strategy, and none of them worked. I never let them see me lose my temper, but they could sense it brewing underneath my blank exterior, and they never gave up. They also ruined the year for their classmates, not just in music, but in every aspect of school life. All sorts of privileges normally extended to fifth graders were revoked for this class, not the least of which was their grade-level concert, canceled when it became clear there was no way to get a hundred kids ready to perform when a dozen of them were constantly disrupting class, regardless of the consequences to themselves.

If their goal was to wreck me, they succeeded. My inability to reach these boys was a major part of why tomorrow will be my last day as an employee of this school district. There was more to it: my difficulties with these kids started three years ago, on my first day of teaching them. One of them wouldn't stop blurting "Donald Trump!" because he knew it would make the other children laugh nervously. Another split the face of my brand new cajon by hitting it too hard (to their credit, the vendor replaced the instrument). And it went downhill from there. I pity the middle school teachers who will now have to figure out what to do with these reprobates.

To be clear, I'm not leaving this job by choice. Administratively, I'm in the category of probationary teacher not recommended for contract. I believe the decision was arbitrary and subjective, and probably based as much in ageism and bias against my autism spectrum disorder, but the administrator covered his tracks with pretextual assessments. With a good lawyer, I could probably litigate my way to a settlement, if not restoration of my job, but I just don't want to put myself through that. I've ranted to many friends about the unfairness of it all, and once I grew tired of hearing my own voice complain about being railroaded, I chose to refocus my energy on job-hunting.

At school, I've been putting the children first--which, as Mary Poppins would say, is as it should be. It hasn't been easy: since the decision was announced to me in January, just minutes before the start of my first grade concert (yes, the district has been exceptionally inhumane in its handling of this situation), I've been suppressing deep feelings of anger, sadness, and fear, and that was on top of the six months of anxiety that followed the first notification that my job was at risk. I kept my workplace expressions to a minimum, talking only with a few teachers I could trust to hear me out. As far as I know, my students never had an inkling what was going on with me, or even that there was something going on, until word began to leak out in April that I would not be coming back. I only discussed it with them when they specifically asked me if it was true, and when I did, I shared a bare minimum of details: no, I'm not retiring; no, I don't know where I'll be teaching (if anywhere) in the fall; and yes, I'll miss you.

I managed to keep that up for two months. It helped to lose myself in the work, telling stories, teaching songs, dancing, playing instruments, all the things I would be doing anyway, with my attention and focus completely on the children and the lesson they were learning. In the last two weeks, though, I became acutely aware of the countdown to the end, especially as children leaving early on vacation began saying their goodbyes to me. They got more and more poignant: at field day, a second grade boy called me over to him so he could tell me "I will never forget you." Children began telling me how much they will miss me, writing me notes, pleading with me not to go.

The hardest day of all, as I expected, was last Friday. As per last day tradition, I led a sing-along that began and ended with the school song I wrote two years ago. There were a good twenty minutes of songs in the Powerpoint I projected, leading all but one (a rap I accompanied on the cajon that I have not allowed children to play since the aforementioned third-grade cracking incident) from the piano with speedy transitions and a bare minimum of announcing. At the end of the school song reprise, I picked up the microphone to tell students to follow their teachers out of the cafeteria, and suddenly found myself incapable of speaking. My eyes began to tear up. I wiped them, tried to find my voice, but it was still caught behind the intense emotion I was feeling. I leaned against the piano, finally managed to get out the words, but they were pointless: without warning, I was swarmed with small people, all trying to get in for a hug. I accepted every little embrace, even some bigger ones from the very boys who'd made fifth grade miserable for me. No one tried to put a stop to it; in fact, in retrospect, it feels like the staff were letting this be a whole-school protest of the administration's decision.

The puppy pile eventually tapered off, and the children made their way out of the cafeteria. My morning was divided between a couple of classes who danced and watched videos in my room, and two others I took out for an extra recess. Throughout the day, children brought me autograph books, yearbooks, pages of construction and notebook paper to sign. Others presented me with notes they had written to me. All too soon, it was time for them to board their buses and leave for the summer. A final flurry of embraces, high-fives, and fist bumps, and they were gone.

I've told many about this send-off, and most have expressed compassion for what's going on with my career. I am sad about leaving, worried about what the future may bring, but for all that, I have to say that moment at the end of the sing-along may very well be the highpoint of my career.

I've been writing in the space lately about my growing awareness that I am on the autism spectrum. It's hard for me to know what adults are thinking or feeling unless they tell me. It's even harder for them to know what's going on behind my flat affect. This dynamic is one of the two main reasons I was never happy in ministry (the other being the deep skepticism I inherited from my father, but that's another story). It's also what drew me into teaching at the elementary level: children are far more transparent about their feelings, and far more accepting of the feelings of others, than are adults. I can be far more present and authentic with children than I ever could with adults. Children also communicate their feelings far more clearly than do adults; and while they're not always good at analyzing the source of those feelings (not that adults are that much better at it), they are quick to let me know whether what I'm doing is working for them, how much they like it, and how grateful they are for what I do. Even so, it's been hard for me to know how much I was actually appreciated by children I saw, at most, twice a week for half an hour at a time. That moment Friday morning left no doubt in my mind.

It was heartening to know that, if the children or their teachers were making the decision, I would still be their music teacher for as long as I wanted to keep working. The reality, of course, is that there was a single adult making that decision, and I'm not sure he was even in the room for most of the sing-along (we've been keeping our distance from each other since January). What mattered most was that, for the first time in my teaching career, I was able to say goodbye, and be said goodbye to, in a satisfying, conclusive way. It's exactly what I needed to get me through the grief and rage I've been feeling, and to send me on my way to whatever the future may hold. If I could make it work financially, this would've been the perfect way for me to retire, basking in the memory of all that love.

There is one more reason I will always work with children, one way or another, as long as I'm able, and it's something I realized about myself before I began my first teaching job in 1984: I can't keep myself from loving my students. It happens with all of them, even teenagers, but especially 5- to 10-year-olds. It's deep enough that I do feel grief when I know any of them won't be my student again, but professional enough that, like Mary Poppins, I don't let it muddle my thinking. I understand they're not my children. They're my students, and as deep and influential as a teacher-student relationship can be, it is by definition a temporary and specialized relationship. Students move on, teachers move away, and while we may leave a lasting impact on each other, we will never be the most important people in each other's lives. These children were on loan to me for a little over thirty hours, spread across nine months. It's a special privilege to have them under my tutelage, but in the end, I always have to hand them back to other adults who are far more important to them.

With those thoughts, I leave this school behind, knowing for the first time that I have made an impact that may last for years to come. I will never be happy with the decision that led to my departure, but I couldn't have asked for a better send-off. I was well and truly blessed by my time with these children. And yes, as people have told me in hopes of comforting me, there will be other children for me to teach. They won't be these children--that's an important distinction I don't think would-be comforters always get--but I will quickly fall in love with them, too, and be ever grateful that they've been shared with me for far too little time.

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