This is one of those “Is-it-just-me” pieces, so as soon as you see the answer is “yes,” you’re excused to graze and ruminate in more nutritious pastures. It’s a gloomy meditation on PAYDE (Post-Academic-Year Depression and Exaltation). Sadly, because this condition only manifests itself after school is over, you don’t get paid for getting PAYDE.
Even if you didn’t have to spend the last week of school packing up dozens of boxes with books and other materials from a lifetime of teaching and saying goodbye to your favorite classroom and lugging it all across campus to a new, cold, alien and still soulless place, you may be feeling a little depleted, enervated, emptied-out now that the book is closed on another year.
There’s a rather rowdy war going on inside me right now – but, hey, what’s new? I’m bubbling with gratitude for the long awaited rest after great labor. When the sun starts to set, I can’t keep a smile from my face as I picture the plotless day I’ll mostly enjoy tomorrow. I won’t be getting up at 4:57 a.m., that’s for sure. I won’t suffer from after-lunch fatigue, exacerbated by the funky, erratic and unpredictable nature students take on for the day’s final two hours. And tomorrow evening will not be muddied by anxiety over things I really should be doing.
But at the same time, I also miss my students and my relationship with them. I miss the moments – moments of pointless fun, moments of pure revelation and insight, and moments of joyous learning. I certainly need a rest from the whole thing, but that doesn’t keep me from being sad about the disappearance of these moments from my life.
I also feel regret, more than a twinge, and I feel this way, to some degree, every May. I feel as if I just blew a big opportunity. I did not do well enough the one thing I do well. I was in a game I should have won, but I lost. At this point, everyone could rush forward and shout, “No, Master! You did not fail! You were wonderful. You couldn’t have done better,” but I’d know better. I have a ready list. I have this year’s catalogue of shame, all the unanswered questions and ignored student issues and failures to enforce rules and lack of patience and grades too lightly given.
I wonder if teaching is the only profession in which its practitioners inevitably fail, inevitably feel they must be reborn again in the fall (“fall” being a metonymy for “the first week of August,” when many of us pack up our Scarlet Letter lunchboxes and head back to the mines in utter darkness). This leads to the happy and unsatisfying combination of the opportunity for redemption and the awareness of failure. There will always be next year . . . except when there won’t be.
And for me, there has long been an intimation of mortality in the annual May farewells. I found this sentiment pretty well articulated in Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, a novel that will not feel quite as earthshaking in a couple of years as it does to many reviewers now. These words come from a fictional legendary shortstop: “It always saddens me to leave the field. Even fielding the final out of the World Series, deep in the truest part of me, felt like death.”
When our students leave each year, the vast majority of them die for us in that we will never see them or hear from them again. And when they leave, our gift of teaching seems to evaporate. It goes dormant. It hibernates for the summer. And I’m not the only teacher who has seriously wondered if he will still have it when school resumes in August.
Then there are those farewell luncheons in which we recognize and applaud our retiring colleagues. I find this so extraordinarily sad I must find a quick exit from the proceedings. I feel panicky at the notion that there won’t be another batch in August, another chance to get it right, to be needed in that way particular to teachers, to make up for the errors of the past, to finally, at long last, be whole in our calling.
Is it just me?