It is the last class of the last day of my teaching career. What can I say and do and be in this moment?
We are sitting in a circle again, and my students are all intensely aware that it is for the last time. Since I’m retiring in one week, it’s the last time for me as well. The trees outside our windows are in full summer glory, bright yellow-green leaves on the Yellow Poplar tree, and a blue sky with no clouds. The sunlight pouring into the room is so strong that I’ve even turned off the table lamps.
As always, my students are convinced they will stay in touch, but I know their lives will sweep them up and I will never see most of them again. In the past, some of them would stop by the following year or two to visit, but of course this time I won’t be here either. It’s a poignant and bittersweet moment for all of us.
For the past hour, we’ve been talking about the year, the highs and lows, the wonderful and exciting moments, the crazy demonstrations - they get particularly enthused talking about my walking barefoot on broken glass, crushing it underfoot with an audible snap and how Jasmine actually rushed out of the room so she wouldn’t have to watch. Or the time that Steve smashed my hand as hard as he could with a heavy hammer - of course, I had it on the front table and there was a massive cylinder of iron resting on it so that I barely felt the impact - but it looked and sounded particularly dangerous. In fact, almost every time I said the phrase “You know, I haven’t done anything dangerous lately”, it was usually followed by a cheer.
And now, they are recalling a few catastrophic failures. Some demos have gone terribly wrong, like when the student who was supposed to throw a raw egg as hard as he could at a sheet held loosely by two frightened students, only to miss and smash the egg against the wall instead. Or, speaking of eggs, the time I was videotaping the Egg Drop Contest, and one team’s contraption (designed to protect a raw egg) on its way down from the fourth floor of the stairwell hit me holding the camera on the third floor and splattered me with raw egg. My reaction, none too civil, was of course recorded for posterity.
They are also talking about the more important things, the way the class evolved, the way their attitude about school has changed, the remarkable things that happened in their study groups. The conversational learning, the sheer amount of physics that they have actually learned. How they see themselves differently. It is moving stuff.
As always, as we are talking, I’m aware of the clock. There’s only a couple of minutes left.
“Look around,” I say. “We have formed something in this room that is extraordinary. What you have accomplished this year in this room is nothing short of miraculous, and yet we did it, day by day, without even thinking about the miracle itself. We all became something larger than ourselves, and that made us successful together. Remember how you felt that first day when you walked in this room? Can you even remember how most of these people were strangers to you?
“Whatever you do next in your life, you are likely to be part of an organization that is bigger than yourself, whether it’s college or work or the army. You now know something that many people do not - it is possible, no matter how impersonal and large an institution is, to do truly satisfying and human work. If we can do it in this school, you can do it anywhere.
“And you also know that you can’t wait for someone else to make it happen. It is your job to take responsibility of what you do, just like it has been in this class. No one made you work hard, or work well with your study group, or learn how to recover when you make mistakes - you did that. And now you know that you are able to do it. Now you know that what we did here wasn’t a miracle, it was a bunch of people doing what people do best, being part of something larger than themselves and doing more together than they thought was possible. That’s the real lesson of this year, and I hope you all know it.
“It as been a deep pleasure working with you. Thank you.”
There is a moment, one last, long, poignant moment, of feeling at one with this being that we have become, and then the last bell rings, there are whoops of liberation, hugs and handshakes, real tears at the end of something precious and transient — this wonderful, messy, vital thing we have created — and then they are gone.