I retired from teaching at the end of the 2018 school year, by which point I had shepherded hundreds of twelve year olds through sixth grade. By the time I left Room 202 for the last time, most of my students had my personal email for one reason or another (recommendation letters I’d written, college essays I’d edited, and so on), and many had requested my Instagram information (they had doubts that I was really moving to a farm and intending to have sheep, I guess). I’ve been lucky in that I’ve managed to stay in touch with a great number of my former students, and a few have even managed to visit, with their parents in tow. So, I was not surprised to hear from Rena, who had moved back to Japan for her high school years, and was now in medical school studying to be a cardiac surgeon, asking if she could visit while on a break from her research fellowship at Harvard.
It’s been ten years since I last saw Rena, on the last day of school, just about her last day in America. The last day of the school year was a big deal in our classroom; kids brought in food, and the desks were all cleared to make for a dance floor. We had quite the party, with alumni from grades 7 through 12 popping in to visit. I broke all the school rules with this party every year, which was deeply unpopular with most of my colleagues, but my principal allowed me to get away with it year after year. At any rate, there were many goodbyes all day long, and many promises to come back to visit, among which was my farewell with Rena.
Parenting children of my own and teaching so many others had made me wise to the ways of the young in many respects, one of which is that they form strong bonds which last as long as they need them to, and then they let go – and one must allow them to let go. Some of the kids who had been the most needy and dependent in their middle school years, were often the ones who were the most distant in their high school years; I knew better than to take this personally. But, I hoped that Rena, a very special kiddo, would be one of those who stayed in touch for years to come.
She did. And so it was that she journeyed up to the farm for a weekend in which we both celebrated a reunion, as well as were reintroduced to each other: she is no longer a student to be guided into good study habits and better ways to write and think, and I am no longer a teacher invested in making every single interaction a teaching moment.
And, as I reminisce over the weekend with Rena, over the things that she remembered of her days in my classroom, and the lessons she’s carried with her all these years, I am ever so grateful that I spent my working life as a teacher, teaching about how to begin…
You begin this way:
this is your hand,
this is your eye,
that is a fish, blue and flat
on the paper, almost
the shape of an eye.
This is your mouth, this is an O
or a moon, whichever
you like. This is yellow.
Outside the window
is the rain, green
because it is summer, and beyond that
the trees and then the world,
which is round and has only
the colors of these nine crayons.
This is the world, which is fuller
and more difficult to learn than I have said.
You are right to smudge it that way
with the red and then
the orange: the world burns.
Once you have learned these words
you will learn that there are more
words than you can ever learn.
The word hand floats above your hand
like a small cloud over a lake.
The word hand anchors
your hand to this table,
your hand is a warm stone
I hold between two words.
This is your hand, these are my hands, this is the world,
which is round but not flat and has more colors
than we can see.
It begins, it has an end,
this is what you will
come back to, this is your hand.