With a baby sleeping in the backseat, we drove down to Alabama on a road we hadn't been on in a year. The last time we drove this direction was May 2013, as we came to Tennessee for a job interview but went back to Alabama the same night for graduation. We were going back for another graduation this past Friday--the class of 2014, the first class I taught for two consecutive years.
They were a notoriously difficult class. I was warned that their writing and reading skills were lacking due to some issues the previous year. I didn't believe it, but they lived up to the hype.
The first year, it was whistling noises and distraction and failing to do the reading. The second year, it was boredom and inside jokes and still often failing to do the reading. But even in the midst of the hard days, the days of cheating and plagiarizing and disrespect, I grew to love them.
I cried over their bad tests and papers and my own limitations. But I also cried over the hardships in their lives, wishing I could heal marriages and resurrect friends and grandparents, and take away the pain.
I loved their bondedness as a class--the way they cared for each other. One day, I sent two boys to the hallway because I couldn't tell which ones were making a noise and distracting the rest of the class (to be fair, it was probably all of them). The rest of the boys jumped up and, as if on cue, marched out singing, "We're not gonna take it..."
The first year, I went home exhausted, discouraged, and crying many days. I couldn't teach them for another year. But one day, a student said, "We always make our teachers quit." As they rattled off a list of the teachers who quit after teaching their class, I made a decision. Whether it was pride or love, I decided to stay at least one more year no matter what. I would not quit until they had cycled through both of my English classes.
There were the days I was jubilant as one of them finally "got it." There were the days they made me laugh til I cried, the lunches they spent chatting with me in my classroom, the projects where their ingenuity astounded me.
They pushed me to discover what could make students care. They pushed me to realize my own limits. As the principal said, we didn't just lead them to water, we splashed water in their faces, trying to force them to drink.
And a crazy thing happened: many of them did. I received notes about ACT scores and a college essay and a senior thesis. I received apologies and thank you's and "We miss you's." And I missed them with a gut-deep, tangible longing I could have never imagined. I had spent every weekday with them for hours, an in the process, they came to be "mine."
When the doors opened Friday night, I saw faces I hadn't seen in person in a year, framed by black caps. It was surreal, and for a second, I thought they were just playing dress up. But they weren't. Our eyes met and shone with tears. I saw their smiles, their pride in themselves, the acknowledgement that this was significant.
We had often failed each other in this process of "educe"--of drawing out. Some days I caused them to retreat. Some days I gave up. But that night I saw that stack of black diplomas and the faces of others teachers who had pushed them and loved them and given them grace. And all I could feel was immense thankfulness for this class.
I wish I could write them an elegant prayer. I wish I could give them the advice that would fix everything. I wish I could pave the way for them to not struggle in ways I have struggled. I wish I could have a guarantee that they would all know God's love and grow in faith.
But they go into the world to make more mistakes and learn the hard way but also to bless others with friendship and kindness and laughter as they have blessed me. Instead of an elegant prayer, my prayers sound more like, "Please, Lord, please. Bless him. Bless her. Thy will be done. I don't know how to pray for them, and it's often so hard, but please, Lord. Be with each one."