Removing posters from the walls, stashing books behind cupboard doors, sweeping clear the desk: This is a ritual for the teacher at the end of the school year. But it is not the only one. June brings graduation, and for many students at my high school in rural Indiana, that means a party. These “open houses” are almost all the same: a card basket, a buffet, a sheet cake, and prettily decorated tables set up in the garage or on the back deck. Prominent in all this is another table, sometimes called (even by the kids), “the shrine.” This one is laden with the evidence of a life in school: trophies, awards, scrapbooks, old term papers, and glossy photographs of the graduate in every grade. In some cases, DVDs of graduation, held just that day or the day before, play in the background.
The setting is ordinary only to someone who has attended too many of these parties to count—like me, their teacher. But the fact is, I look forward to these celebrations. Graduation is a marker event for me, too, and the parties are an opportunity to honor my students, for whom graduation is, after all, the biggest achievement of their short lives. I love my students, and at graduation, I have my own emotions to deal with: joy, relief, sometimes regret, and always, when the graduates walk across the stage and out of my daily life, a profound sense of loss.
So every year at this time, I drive the back roads, routes that I ordinarily don’t traverse, to attend one open house after another. Farmers come up behind me in their pick-ups, exasperated, I am sure, because my driving is erratic. I slow down and speed up unpredictably as I scan the mailboxes for names and numbers like 7342 S 750 W, addresses that reflect the rural grid instead of platted city streets. Usually someone has tied balloons to the mailbox or planted a sign: “Jessica’s Open House!” or “Katie’s Party!” or “Brad’s Graduation Bash!”
I attend these parties every year even though no one quite knows what to do with me once I’m in the door. I’m not family, yet my influence has been more profound in some cases than even a close relative’s. I’m not a buddy, but sometimes my opinion has been more crucial than a friend’s. They are not my children, but their importance in my life is incalculable.
The graduates greet me at the end of the driveway or on the porch with open arms and lively voices: “Oh! You came! Thank you!” We hug exuberantly. I remember something funny from class and talk to them about their plans for next year. I usually don’t eat, not because the food isn’t tempting, but because quite often, the students forget to offer me anything. Though they are happy to see me, my presence throws them off stride. I am out of my usual context.
Sometimes they will say, “Oh, you have to go to so many parties you must already have eaten!” and in this way keep me from the potato salad, the pulled pork, the coleslaw, and the cake. I make it a point then to view their collection of memorabilia and to compliment their parents on their son’s or daughter’s accomplishments. Sometimes I chat with other guests, but most often, I leave after only a few minutes. I am at loose ends here. Used to directing the scene, suddenly I am part of the background.
When I leave, there being nothing else to say, nothing more to do, I close the door gently behind me. In this way, I move from the present into the past for this group of graduates, and they for me.
Attending these parties is the equivalent of crossing the stage. I am free now to turn my attention to the summer and to whatever is on the horizon, to rest up for next year. But I drive away slowly. I feel like my classroom looks: stripped of posters, empty of books, barren. I’ll miss these kids.