What I Would Like to Tell My Son’s Fifth-Grade Teacher at His Graduation
For weeks now, my friends have asked me, “Are you sad? Are you sad the year is over?” and I have said, emphatically, “No! I’m ready. I can’t wait for summer.” My head has been filled with thoughts of mornings gloriously spent in pajamas and of stuffing the lunch boxes far back in the kitchen cabinets where I cannot see them for months.
(I really hate packing lunches.)
Then, this week happened. My fifth grader had party on top of party, all celebrating the ends of somethings: his robotics team party. His safety patrol party. His parent-student kickball game, the privilege reserved for fifth graders alone. I watched you out there with the kids, running as fast as you could muster around the kickball bases while hordes of children ran after the ball in an effort to have the chance to hurl it at your head and tag you out. I saw you laugh, beside them and with them, when you missed the base.
Last Friday was the day of the fifth-grade party—cosmic bowling, countless Taylor Swift songs sung loudly by so many fifth-grade girls in matching neon T-shirts, and, yes, a photo booth. It was the same photo booth that was at my niece’s Sweet 16 party in October. I smiled when I saw you join the group of fifth-grade teachers jumping behind the booth’s curtain for pictures all your own.
In the fall, it was my kindergartner who asked me to get in that photo booth with him, and I hesitated. This time, I didn’t. This time, I was the one who asked my tall, lanky 10-year-old to take a break from eating his pizza and bowling with his classmates to jump into the photo booth with me. There was no baby sleeping on my chest; instead, there was a toddler sitting on my hip. This year, more than any, has shown me how fast the time actually does go and how much my children change, sometimes overnight. I don’t hesitate anymore, whether I’m jumping into a picture or giving or receiving spontaneous hugs.
Events in the past several years drove home to me, in unfortunate ways, exactly how important you are in my children’s lives and mine, beyond the tests and the lesson plans. I learned that when a shooter invades a school, teachers will lie, challenge and sometimes die trying to protect their students. I learned that when a tornado takes a school down as if it was built with Popsicle sticks, teachers will use their own bodies to cover those of their small charges. After the disaster in Oklahoma at the Plaza Towers school, my friends all shook their heads in horror at the agony of the parents who could not reach their children when they knew a tornado was coming. But it dawned on me that the parents outside the school weren’t necessarily the only ones separated from their children. I realized that if it was our school in that position, you would also be worrying about your own son at college nearby, whom you could not reach. You, too, would be separated from your loved ones, even as you led and protected mine.
(Those words are inadequate, but they are the only words I have.)
Thank you for spending this year with my child, maybe the last year when I can really, truly call him a child, and for continuing to nurture his love of school. Thank you for the Friday afternoon dance parties, the reading breaks, and the current events assignments that had him reading news articles with new interest. Thank you for encouraging him to enter essay contests and to go beyond the boxed curriculum. Thank you for having great expectations, but also giving him grace when he needed it. Thank you for the day when you emailed me a picture of him on a field trip with you—when you knew I was far away and missing him—with the simple note: “We’re having a great day.”
Tomorrow morning, the little boy that I once dropped off in a preschool classroom only to sit in the parking lot and lean my head on the steering wheel, tears streaming down my face, will graduate from elementary school. He’s not grown up yet, but he’s on his way. I have the distinct, gnawing feeling that things are about to get real up in here, that this is the autumn of his childhood, and my days are growing shorter with him. I’m infinitely grateful for this past year—a good year, a year of happy days and many books and increased independence—a year we shared with you. I don’t think he has any idea what he’s getting into with middle school. I’m not sure I do either. Frankly, I think that’s OK. He’ll be fine (and I will too). Overwhelmed at first, perhaps, but fine. I am not worried. I’m actually a little excited.
So thank you, for all of it. Thank you for your sense of humor, for your eternal patience, and for the work you put into my child. Most of all, thank you for loving him when you didn’t have to and for letting him be who he is. I understand he might not always have that gift, which makes it all the more precious. He was lucky to share your classroom. We both were.
What I Actually Said to My Son’s Fifth-Grade Teacher at His Graduation
Thank you, Ms. W. Have a great summer.
This essay originally ran in the Huffington Post.