Final Two Days (Three Years Ago)
I don’t wanna sit back in slack and wasted holes/
Since I’m surrounded with the hearts and souls/
I get back on my feet, wipe my eyes clean and go/
Back to the front to sing out here we go.
--Hot Water Music, The End
Graduation Day, 2005:
I have a hard time with this day, I don’t feel the paramount relief, or at least not primarily, I’m not happy to see them go. What I get is a lot of regret. The feeling that if I’d worked harder, they would’ve learned more. If I’d busted my ass to find more field trips, prepare even more, push them, push their parents, give up more lunches or more time after school, more Saturdays. I wish I’d done those things and don’t like myself for not doing them, and show up on the last days of school sad, and the kids don’t know why.
These kids, these graduating 8th graders, who could’ve sat under a banner that said “We Are People of Change,” who sat to the left of the banner delivered by the mayor to only one middle school in the 408, these kids inherited a school in chaos, whose scores had gone down three straight years, the worst school in the District, County, South Bay Region. These kids who changed that, they listened to the [POY] at the microphone say, “Worst to-” and they shouted “First!”
“Who did it?” he says.
“We did it!” they shout.
And they know it, and they mean it, and there is no one who can say what that understanding will bring them, what future victories have had their foundations laid in these shouts, these assemblies past, that swagger that comes with knowing you’ve accomplished something and laid it before the eyes of others who have no choice but to acknowledge it.
And L. my starting small forward, who gives an address; L. who speaks of coming to [our school] from Vietnam, “knowing three words of English.” Who discusses how hard it was “the constant struggle to understand.” He keeps to that, the desire to understand. He speaks of his teachers, the one who taught him to speak English, the one who gave him his first B+, pushing him to arrive, finally on grade level. He speaks of those early days, the days of struggle that are now behind him.
“When I leave [our school], I will no longer worry about trying to understand. I go forward expecting to be understood.”
And never mind my ELD-teacher appreciation of L.'s ability to manipulative verb tense to make a point, I’ve been thinking of his words as maybe the most succinct statement of what we’re doing here that anyone has yet presented.
These 8th graders did not want to leave on Friday. They wandered around after receiving their diplomas, hugging each other and crying, and we let them because this wasn’t the typical middle school melodrama at life change; this was the action of a group who knows that it will not be the same somewhere else, a group who knows they have made something special in this east side spot, backed up against the highway, the hills towering in the distance. They made it happen, and they’re proud, they legitimately like each other, and have never built stronger relationships with each other or with their teachers. A flood of emotion this week, and when it was over they did not want to leave.
Ti. (Captain, small forward), M. (Co-captain, power forward), and Tr. (Co-captain, point guard) come by my room seven times, each time with more tears. We have spent countless hours over the last three years together after school, running, jumping, cutting, learning. We’ve had Saturday practices, and weekend long tournaments, and they have hearts bigger than the size of the normal human heart, don’t know what it means to quit, in anything, these girls who promised to come to Palo Alto as incoming freshman together, these girls, the class of 2013. They tell me they’ll never forget me. I’ll never forget them.
I. comes by, Notre Dame College Preparatory School for Girls, class of 2009, sees me, bursts into tears. She hugs me, and says thank you for about five minutes. She got her ticket out of the neighborhood she’s come to hate, the family that is a nightmare, and maybe she’ll never come back to say hi. And that’s fine.
I see D. as I’m throwing out garbage and offer my hand. He shakes his head. “Brothers gotta hug.” He tells me he feels like he let me down. He talks about bad choices he’s made, and explains and explains. Enough. “Look at my hand,” I tell him, holding my hand curved out, fingers stretched wide. “That’s where the world is for you,” I tell him. “At your fingertips. That other stuff, learn from it, move on. Whatever you want, at your fingertips. Reach out and grab it.” His eyes are dinnerplates, then he nods slowly.
I wander into the cafeteria to get an update on that day’s assembly. R. throws her arms around my neck and just cries. She’s going to IB, leaving many friends, and today is hard. Her friend A. is right there, too, and A.'s going to IB with her, and these two are so impressive, not brilliant as the other nine I’ve recruited, but no one has worked harder or with more drive and focus. They possess in abundance at 14, traits I am still trying to cultivate in myself at 25. “You taught me so much,” A. says, basically wailing, and I choke back tears because I don’t know how to tell her what she’s taught me.
J. stands at the door, sagging shorts, high white socks in traditional cholo style, shifty-armed because he’s hiding his new three-dot tattoo. He looks me in the eye, sticks out his hand, grips hard. “You were the best teacher I ever had,” he says, the words heavily accented because he’s been speaking English less than two years. I’ve heard that a few times today, will in the following days read it over again in the end-of-the-year surveys they filled out, but there’s something about this kid, and not just his half-cliché tough-guy-whose-respect-you-earned scenario, or maybe just that standing there, still gripping hard and making eye contact like I taught him, he says, even, firm, no embarrassment, “Thank you.” And he walks away, down the ramp.
Now, finally, the 8th graders have left. I look at my own kids, a little shell-shocked from the emotion of the day, and I give out the ribbons I’ve bought to honor their MASTERing of Big Goals (Read 180 words/minute, improve writing 1 point on a 4-point scale, MASTER 80% of standards, improve reading ability 2 grade levels), and they clap and cheer for each other. I tell them I’m proud of their progress and their hard work. I tell them maybe they wished they could’ve watched more movies, or did less homework, or had more free time, but that’s not what I’m about. I say maybe you thought I was mean or too hard, and okay, but everything I did, every time I came down on you or made you stay after school, or looked angry, that was for you. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t try. We must be people of change, I say, and defy the myth-makers who will hold you down because of your skin color or last name. This is not something that comes easy, I tell them.
They leave better than they came in. All of them. I didn’t get all of them to grade level, but I got some, and more got close. I spent hours dissecting work, test scores, charting improvement, looking for patterns, planning lessons and analyzing how I think their brains can structure new information. I have policy about not wasting time, using every second to good advantage, and employ carrot-and-stick practices using stop watches and monitoring the elapse of seconds. I am relentless in pursuit of achievement, and it happens sometimes, that in process of all that evaluation, they can become bundles of data, and I loose their faces. Then E. brings me a card they have made and all signed, “Dear Mr. [TMAO], Thank you for supporting all of your canguritos” -- And then you remember all at once, in a rush.
“Ketchup clap for Mr. [TMAO],” M. shouts, and the smack their hands against curled fists.
“Mosquito clap!” he says, and they make zzzzzz-ing noises, moving their hands in an arc and then smacking them together.
“Big hand,” he says, and they stick their hands in the air, fingers spread wide.
Then the bell rings, and these 7th graders who are now 8th graders, who have been told this school is theirs now, their inheritance a thing of power and dignity, whose summer of freedom waits just beyond the doors, they do not want to leave.