I didn’t know. I truly had no idea.
Wednesday, September 9, 2015 was my last day as a teacher at XXX Elementary School. I had no idea how difficult, how exceptionally sad, it would be to leave a job I thought I was totally burned out on.
But more significantly, more difficult, and even more surprising: I had no idea what my presence meant to the school. I truly had no inkling of the regard and affection my coworkers had for me.
I am overwhelmed and astonished.
And filled with a profound sorrow which I lack the words to fully express.
I’m wondering if leaving, leaving the school and leaving Hawaii, will be one of the greatest mistakes of my life.
I’ve always considered myself to be at best a mediocre teacher. Sure, I can relate well to particular students, but overall I never thought I was anything special. On the contrary, I’ve always felt inferior, unprofessional, and ineffective compared to most of my colleagues. I just did my little SPED thing and tried, with mixed success, not to be an inconvenience.
I figured my leaving would be little more than a blip on the radar. I’ve seen a few teachers leave over the years: teachers with more seniority, teachers with better credentials, teachers with more professional accomplishments, and teachers who are a lot more “teacher-ly.” Some have retired, some have transferred to other schools, some took admin positions, some moved out of state. There was usually a brief acknowledgement of their service, a card for anyone who was interested to sign, and a cursory lei presentation.
I was hoping to avoid that and simply slip away unnoticed. I expected, at most, if anyone happened to notice, a “we should probably give him a lei or a card or something” polite-but-whatevahs effort from a few people.
That’s not what happened.
What happened went against everything I have ever thought and believed about myself for my entire life, in anything that I have attempted.
Everyone noticed. Everyone. And to all appearances, they all genuinely cared.
Each the morning the students gather in the courtyard for the flag pledge before being released to class. Shortly before the usual flag pledge time I was summoned by intercom to report to the courtyard. When I arrived the principal was there. She called me out to the center of the outdoor stage, and announced to the entire school that I was leaving. She briefly reviewed some of my accomplishments — NASA Explorer School activities, LEGO League coach, etcetera. She talked about how sad she was to see me leave. And then she called for a representative from each grade level to come forward, and one at a time a student or a group of students from grades 1 through 6 came forward and presented me with a lei and a card from the grade level. Then a number of students from various grades came up and presented me with more cards and leis. A group of my students from last year came up, and one of my girls read a speech she had written thanking me for helping her and all the other students. It was far more than I would have expected.
And then I was deluged with a wave of hugs from students — SPED, general ed, all grade levels, kids I know, kids I don’t know. A few younger students were crying because they were expecting to be in my class next year and were already looking forward to it.
Finally the students were released to class, and I figured that was it. And that would have been enough. It would have been far more than I expected.
But it was only the beginning.
One of my fellow SPED teachers rolled a “meal on wheels” into the classroom, a breakfast-brunch she prepared herself, and set up a SPED spread in the classroom for the SPED staff.
Throughout the day, several parents of students I’ve worked with in the past dropped by my room, crying. Genuinely crying. Even though their children were no longer in my class, they were deeply saddened to learn that I was leaving the school. They brought me cards and presents. One parent even brought me lunch.
A group of a dozen grade 6 students — the grade that’s too cool to care — dropped by to hang out in the classroom “talking story” during recess.
Wednesday afternoons are reserved for the weekly faculty meeting. The faculty meeting started out normal enough — boring blah-de-blah stuff. Apparently that first ten minutes was simply filling time until everybody could be there; and so everybody had time to fill their plates. There was an immense buffet spread, both healthy food and cakes and cookies and chips and snacks, the biggest I’ve seen at a faculty meeting, even bigger than during the holiday season. Unexpectedly, after the first ten minutes or so the principal interrupted the standards-based practices lecture to announce that “we’ll return to this later; first, we have a special presentation.” She proceeded to announce, yet again, my departure, and then she narrated a humorous — yes, my principal was cracking jokes — video presentation about things I could possibly do because I am moving to a place where nobody knows me.
Then they played the video which I narrated and helped write and edit from the 2009 NASA Explorer Schools trip to Yellowstone National Park. (Via his cameo appearance in the Yellowstone video, our plastic lizard pal Trippy managed to make an appearance at my departure party.) This was followed by a slideshow of various school activities in which I’d participated during my eight years at the school: NASA events, field trips, camping trips, presentations, and classroom activities.
And then the individual and grade-level presentations began. Every grade level. Office staff. Educational assistants. Custodians. Admin. They made… not bought, made cards and leis. Their students made cards and drawings. They said things I would never have expected, talking about the things they would miss about me, talking about what they felt I had brought to the school and to the students and to them personally, talking about the fun and energy and enthusiasm I had brought to the school. Several were so choked up and emotional they could barely speak. The librarian, tech coordinator, and curriculum coordinator all began crying during their presentation — a presentation that included presenting to me a special LEGO-themed banner they had created that every employee of the school — not just the teachers, but the support staff, the custodians, every employee — had signed.
The curriculum coordinator got her son on the telephone. It was his 20th birthday. He’s away at college now. But he was one of the students in the sixth grade class where I completed my student teaching. He still remembers me. I remember him, too. He was one of those students… well, one of those students they assign the student teachers to work one-on-one with, let’s just say. They put the call on speaker phone. He said a number of students from that class remember me, and still talk about those days from time to time.
Some of the presentations were funny. Some were serious. Some were short. Some were long. All seemed genuine.
And it was all unexpected. It was all overwhelming.
Ultimately I said a few words. I don’t even remember what I said (altho’ I think the entire thing was recorded; maybe I’ll get a copy one day), but one of the Educational Assistants with whom I’ve worked since the beginning assured me that I did not ramble on too long and that I said exactly the right thing. “They liked it that you lost your composure and had such a hard time saying anything,” she said.
Afterward, the EAs, some of whom have been at the school for twenty or more years, said they have never seen the entire school come together for a send-off like this, not for anyone, ever.
Then it was back to… the food, and talking, and more tears and hugs, and… and then I went back to my classroom and finished up some grade reports, and signed a final document with the office secretary (who had tears in her eyes when she brought the final forms to me to me), and then the EAs and I loaded all the leis and cards and leftover snacks and gifts into my car and I locked “my” classroom door for the final time… and I drove home with tears streaming down my face.
Honestly and truly, I had no idea. No idea that so many students would care whether or not I was there tomorrow or next week or next year. Even less idea that it would make any difference one way or another to so many of my colleagues — to nearly all of my colleagues.
And it is very, very difficult for me to accept that I was doing something right. That I have been making a positive impact for the past eight years. That I could possibly be so universally respected and appreciated and liked.
I have spent my life believing myself to be a failure at everything; or at best, to be barely adequate once in a while. Yet now I find out that, apparently, I’ve been doing something right.
But I find out when it’s too late. I’ve sold my house. I’ve submitted my resignation. I’ve packed up my belongings, a moving truck will be showing up in a few days, and I have a house and a car waiting for me in another state thousands of miles away where I don’t know anybody and where I have no job waiting for me.
I was beginning to feel like I was coming to hate working as a teacher. Blindly, I was oblivious to the extent, and I do not think the word is too strong to use, to which I had become loved as a teacher. Me, haole guy from da mainland, loved here in Hawaii.
Would it have made a difference had I known? The unpleasant aspects of the job would have remained – the one out of a hundred parents who are never happy, the incompetent bureaucracy of the department and the district and the complex, the pressure of employee evaluations and school rankings, the unrealistic expectations for student achievement on the latest version of the standardized test, and the sad reality that relative to the cost of living, the teacher salary trend continues to be inversely proportional.
I feel like this should, or could, be, at this comparatively late stage in my life, a great moment of awakening. A difficult to deny, observable, convincing proof to myself that I am not incompetent or mediocre at everything I attempt. “Social proof” that I am not a failure.
Yet… that was when I was still a teacher at XXX Elementary School.
But I’m not a teacher at XXX Elementary School anymore. I’m a former teacher. Because I quit. I walked away. I was actually doing something right, I was doing something well, I was doing something that other people liked and appreciated and respected, and I gave it up.
I didn’t see it. I was too dim-witted to notice. I was too overwhelmed by the petty challenges to see the bigger picture. The brighter picture. The better picture.
I didn’t see the value until I threw it all away.
I didn’t know.
Coincidentally, September 9 marks sixteen years to the day since we arrived in Hawaii. 9/9/99 was the auspicious date.