Thursday, June 10, 2010


As a free person I can always come and go,
Not caught in ideas of is and is not.
Not caught in ideas of being and non-being
Let your steps be leisurely.
Waxing or waning the moon is always the moon
The wind is still flying. Can you feel it my dear?
Bringing the rain from afar to nourish the nearby cloud
Drops of sunshine fall from on high to earth below
And the lap of earth touches the clear vault of the sky.
-Thich Nhat Hanh

This is M.  And that is me, looking like the unfortunate result of Harry Potter having a one-night stand with a chipmunk (I knew I wasn't meant for academia after my first run-in with the black robe).  I was trying not to cry in this picture, which is pretty much true of every single photo taken of me (and there were many) at Tuesday's graduation.  It is humbling when a beautiful, beaming  just-graduated young woman is comforting ME, telling ME to dry my tears.

This senior class, now beyond the world of "senior", starts at the bottom rungs of the hierarchy again in the fall.  And we sent them off with all of the regalia that befits this rite of passage.  In my case, this included a fair dose of tears and a little bit of my heart fluttering away with white dresses, flyaway hair, and bright smiles that held hope, confidence and excitement about the journey ahead.  I can't say that my heart feels completely OK at the moment. I'm not good at goodbyes, and I'm awfully good at getting misty. A lethal combination after grading exams, writing and proofing comments, and general end-of-school edginess which proved to be the Perfect Storm. Every girl with whom I had even the slightest connection made me cry, and MOST of the pictures the girls have so lovingly (ahem) posted on Facebook are heartwarming but decidedly NOT flattering.  And that is okay.

The class of 2010 sort of stole my heart from the moment I met them. I was a new and nervous teacher who basically relied on instinct and internal pep-talks to get through my first year of standing in front of a bevy of girls and trying to impart knowledge about that most dreaded of subjects: history.  I shouldn't have worried as much as I did. They are intelligent, spirited, hilariously funny, courageous - in sum, full of character and compassion.  They are my cup of tea.  And I spent my first year of teaching doing a happy dance over the fact that I advised and taught such wonderfully vibrant young women.

I didn't teach M. as a freshman, but she often stored her lacrosse bag in my classroom, always asking hesitantly - kind of skittishly - before she deposited her gear on my floor with a half-smile, half-grimace expression that is so quintessentially hers.  As a sophomore, she was in my European Civilization class, and within a few classes of watching her and interacting with her, I knew that she was different from the rest of the girls.  Unlike so many of her peers, who with good reason, don protective layers that shield their hearts and their hurts, M. has a heart that permits itself to be hurt and allows others in, with little cautionary tape defining her borders. Beyond that, she is just plain funny. In one class, she assiduously typed what I was saying verbatim (this was her habit, actually), and when in the next class, I prompted the girls to recall a specific fact about Versailles, she calmly opened her notes and proceeded to read what I had said...again, word for word, perfectly capturing my intonations and speech patterns. Have I mentioned that dignity is not something you should overly privilege as a teacher?  Apparently, I wax poetic when I talk about fountains and art (go figure)...and we all remember that class to this day. 

It is no mystery that being a teenage girl is pretty difficult at times, and that pressure from your peers can cause your brain to take a temporary leave...until the age of 22 or so.  This is not some great secret. M. struggled with honoring her enviable moral compass while keeping her friendships intact.  She did so with such integrity, and I often wondered how she maintained her smile...I noticed and I hurt for her when it went missing - deeply. Despite the fact that she is a star athlete and has oodles of friends, she was very lonely a lot of the time. She loves her friends. She is a loyal friend.  She can empathize with anyone about anything, and she can validate the smallest hurt and the greatest heartache. She can put into words what others cannot. She owns her mistakes and she questions EVERYTHING.

And she sees the things in people that others cavalierly overlook.  She would chalk this up to the fact that two of her senses are diminished: she can't taste or smell.  As a result, she notices things around her that pass the rest of us by...her observations go well beyond the superficial; while her peers are sniffing one another's hair, she is noticing the way their eyes close when they laugh, and how her history teacher folds her legs beneath her when she sits and talks to her class. She would be an excellent therapist, because she so quickly picks up on a fleeting facial expression that, with complete accuracy, reflects how a person is feeling on any given day.  I chalk it up to M. being acutely aware of the wonderful symphony of many hearts struggling to find safety, solace, happiness, and love - and part of it may be the sensory thing - but a huge part of it is her own huge heart.

One of the things I love most about my calling is that I get to learn from so many amazing individuals on a daily basis.  I've come to the conclusion that if a teacher doesn't learn as much (if not more) than her students, perhaps a different career is in order.  And I have learned so much from M. about friendships, about endurance, about the importance of levity in the classroom (I need only mention Lionel Ritchie), and the gift of an ongoing conversation that spanned three years and will hopefully continue a lifetime.  It is hard to place a value on the impression an individual (or an entire class) can make on your heart, because over time, that impression takes a different shape.  It changes in the same way that a handprint in concrete does once it dries. And people walk on it.  And leaves gather in its crevices. Moss creeps in and changes its texture. And a child takes sidewalk chalk to it and temporarily declares it to be a different color.  M. would appreciate this notion because despite our differences (i.e. the thought of me holding a lacrosse stick should fill you with dread), we think about the world similarly. Oftentimes, our slightly slanted view of the world is captured through the same rainbow prism, and when the light passes through, it is somehow comforting to know that someone else understands. So I know that she will understand what Thich Nhat Hanh meant when he wrote so beautifully, in such simple prose:  "And the lap of the earth touches the clear vault of the sky."

So, M., may your steps be leisurely.  May you always come and go.  May the lap of the earth always provide a soft landing. And may ideas of "is" and "is not" never cloud the clarity your perfect vision.