Ithaka

Bricks
Seniors leave a final mark on their high school.

It’s only days now until graduation. The excitement in the halls of the two high schools I serve is palpable. Final exams feel like an afterthought because culminating projects, AP exams, and work/study evaluations are complete. Seniors are focused on the traditions that mark their status: Senior Breakfast, Senior Cookout, Senior Day. In the school where I taught, each senior paints a cinder block in a corridor somewhere in the building–an epitaph of sorts. Their final message to the rest of us.

My last class graduated a year ago. I miss them still. Their graduation was particularly poignant because it was the last time I knew the graduates crossing the stage, could feel I’d had a direct hand in their accomplishment. I wrote to them, just a day before the last day of school. A final message of my own, one I send out now, again to them if they are reading this, and to graduates everywhere.

Dear Graduates,

I know, I know…just one more day to go. The last few weeks went by quickly, didn’t they? That’s always the way. It seems like you’ll never reach the shore and then, suddenly, there it is in front of you, a surprise that came too fast.

That’s the way I feel, too, about your graduation. You are my very last class, and I am already bereft. I will miss you terribly–even if all we have done in glimpse each other in the halls these past few years as you have moved on from my 9th grade English class and I have stepped out of my own classroom and into the classrooms of my colleagues. But I have always known you were there. Your presence grounded me. But soon now, you will have crossed the stage and left these halls we’ve walked together.

But it is time for that. Time for you to set out on your journey. Time for you to embrace your destiny.

To that end, I am sending you a poem, a love letter really about your future wherever you sail. You will, of course, recognize Ithaka and all the allusions the poem contains. We didn’t read the Odyssey together for nothing! The last lines may be puzzling to you now, but however you interpret them, the remarkable journey, rich in adventures along the way, is what I wish for you. I am impossibly proud of you, like the proverbial button-busting parent, and I hope you will stay in touch. (You can “friend” me now, BTW.)

With best wishes, pride, joy, and love,

Mrs. P

Some of them wrote back to me, articulating the message of the poem:

-I view Ithaca not only as a place, but as a home or set of goals and opportunities…

-I have very big goals for myself…college, medical school, residency…Every day I think about them and hope that I will achieve them. This poem encourages me to believe that I can.

-I gleaned that the journey itself may be better than the intended destination…

-It may be cliche, but for me, this whole poem screamed “Life’s a journey, not a destination,” and I’ll try to remember that as I move on in life.

-When I read the “love letter,” I replaced “Ithaca” with “happiness.” It all made sense after that.

-I think that the last lines of the poem mean that if we enjoyed our journey, our destination will not be a letdown. We’ll have gained so much experience that we understand our goal, our “Ithaka,” is really a point of reference to guide us through our journey. We eventually want to arrive home, but if we constantly think about home, we’ll miss out on the lessons we can learn during the trip there. I suppose graduation is a mini-Ithaka!

-One student wrote a poem of her own, thanking me for showing her that “the path to Ithaca has not ended, but has only just begun.” She was a student in my American classroom. Now she is a citizen of the world. As are they all. May their journeys be long, full of adventure and learning, and may they reach their Ithakas, enriched and grateful for the journey.

That is how I feel about them: enriched and grateful for their presence in my life.

n.b.: If you, the reader, run your cursor over the poem, you’ll see “hot spots.” Click on those circles and see how I might have guided students through the poem had I shared it with them in class.

Pomp and Circumstance

05-21-09-mccutcheon-end-of-year-and-graduation-033In an American high school like mine, which is not so different from most, students come in all shapes and sizes with backgrounds so varied you are surprised they were raised in the same country, let alone the same community. They range widely in their abilities, their interests, their experiences, and their aspirations. Some have parental support so intense we call their mothers and fathers “helicopter parents”; others have no support at all. Some are from robust, supportive, intact families; others have survived dysfunction that boggles the mind—alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, divorce, and abandonment. Some are rich; others, dirt poor. They may speak perfect English, bad English, or no English at all. They may have traveled the world or seen only the corners of Tippecanoe County. They are the sons and daughters of bankers, business owners, teachers, farmers, industrial workers, lawyers, tradesmen and women, city engineers and school janitors. They live in trailers, apartments, bungalows, farm houses, and mansions on the prairie. Some even live in cars.

Black and white, Hispanic and Asian, a few Native Americans. They are from here—from three different middle schools—and from everywhere, individuals (over the years) from as far away as Libya, Afghanistan, France, Russia, Bulgaria, China, Ukraine, Iraq, Peru, Brazil, Belgium, and many more countries around the globe. They are Christian, Muslim, and Jew; straight and gay; rich and poor, tall and short; fat and thin; handsome and plain.

For some, it has been a straight line from those first “lost in the halls” days as freshmen to academic distinction and class leadership.

For others, it has been a struggle to reach the stage.

Some have moved nearly anonymously from first year to last; others are personalities, standouts whom everyone knows.

But we weave them together as a class so that by the end of their time with us, when they graduate, they are whole cloth, dressed alike in their red and gold graduation robes, momentarily still on the stage in front of us. We are their admiring parents, extended family, friends of all ages, and their teachers, whose investment in their success is deeper than they’ll ever know.

Most will continue their education—here at Purdue or other at other Indiana colleges, some in vocational schools, a few at colleges out-of-state. Some will enter the military; some, the workforce. But for just this minute, there they all are, a tableau on the stage, a pleasing assembly whose accomplishments make us proud.

The Pledge of Allegiance. The introductions of the School Board of Trustees and the school administrators. A speech from the Teacher of the Year. This year it is an English Department colleague who speaks. His topic, an important one in this time of economic uncertainty and overemphasis on testing, is this: “What is an education for?” Not, he argues, to get jobs, but rather, to know what it is to be human.

The Faculty Scholarship, always a surprise announcement at graduation, is awarded each year to a student or students whose work ethic, demeanor, and personal integrity represent the values we as a faculty share. My colleague announces the recipients, and the two, blushing and excited, but even so, poised, come down from their seats in the bleachers to receive giant foam board replicas of checks—and the real ones, too—in front of everyone here in Elliott Hall, Purdue’s immense (and packed) auditorium.

Five valedictory addresses this year: One makes me and the teachers around me tear up. Juan was born in Mexico. From the very beginning of his education in America, he has been one of those “straight line” kids. In his speech, he thanks his parents, in English and in Spanish, for bringing him to this country and giving him the opportunity they hadn’t had. He has worked hard, he says, to make his parents proud.

Who wouldn’t cry?

Then, the Awarding of the Diplomas. One by one, the students’ names are called and each makes the walk, stopping halfway to shake the principal’s hand and receive his or her diploma—a blank, actually. After the ceremony, teachers will perform one last service: We’ll congregate with the students in a room under the auditorium and give them the actual document. Withholding the diplomas this way prevents hijinks on stage and guarantees that all outstanding fees are paid before the diploma itself is handed over. What we see is stagecraft, and for the most part, the students play their part as instructed. But, like a slip peeking out below the hem of a dress, a student’s individuality is glimpsed in the pace of his walk, the manner of extending her hand, a furtive or full-on smile at the audience, the reaction when air horns and whistles and shouts of “Woot! Woot!” erupt in the audience. A couple of cut-ups dance their way across the stage. Roaring applause affirms the accomplishments of the young man in the wheelchair and the special students who are accompanied in their walk.

When the last Z has crossed the stage, we look at the whole again, not just at the individual making the journey, and see that the group has reassembled without our realizing it. They are a tableau again—but just for a few more minutes while the principal speaks to the audience directly, acknowledging the personality of this class as a whole—go-getters, step-up-to-the-plate kids. Then, the magic words, directed to the students themselves: “You may move your tassels to the left.”

The tableau breaks. The spell is broken. A hat sails through the air, though tossing hats has been forbidden.

Graduation this year is a spectacular finish—for the graduates, of course, who leave the stage smiling broadly and then gather outside with their families and friends for photographs, handshakes, hugs, and happy tears—but for me, too. For all of us who have invested ourselves, day after day, week after week, month after month, in these kids. They are our legacy and they make all of us proud.

Farewell for the Teacher

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.