In the fall of 2012, I began my first year at this school. First block, first day, I met a group of 29 freshmen in their first high school math class: geometry. From the beginning, we all clicked. A new school didn’t seem quite so intimidating because every day of that first semester started with camaraderie and good times–and some learning, too.
Three freshmen left the school mid-term. All but one of the rest passed. Eleven Asians (1 east, 3 south,4 south east, 3 mideast), nine whites, seven Hispanic , one black. Five Muslim. No long-term ELLs, one suffered from near-blindness. Ten athletes who played their entire high school careers, including two who eventually got scholarships. The eventual senior prom queen. All those who passed made it through trigonometry, at least. Most made it to pre-calculus. Only a few made it to Calculus or AP Stats, although at least three talented students were derailed by an F from Mr. Singh , which I found frustrating. All of them are going to college. They reflected the school’s population writ large: diverse, athletic, not overly focused on academics, but smart enough to get it done.
One student I never saw again: the feckless, charming girl who failed all her classes by treating school as social hour continued to frustrate her father, who brought her away from the Philippines and her mother, hoping he could prevent a pregnancy before a high school diploma. Another student I just didn’t run into much.
Four others were likewise never in one of my classes again, but I saw them frequently; they’d always shout a greeting across the quad, identifying themselves because they know I never wear my glasses.
The remaining twenty saw me in at least one subsequent math class. Five saw me twice more. None seemed to mind.
In all our frequent chats, literally up through their June graduation, we’d regularly refer to “that first geometry class”. Our touchstone memory, kept alive through four years of their education.
One of my “three-timers”, a sweet, tentative young man who never had another math teacher until pre-calc, stopped by with his yearbook. As we thumbed through the senior pages, calling out familiar faces, he suddenly said,”Man, I bet you’ve taught most of the seniors at least once.”
We counted it together—of the 93 rows of four students each, I’d taught 288 of them, or roughly 75%. Many–at least fifty–more than once.
In the face of that percentage, I decided it was time to work around my dislike of crowds, speeches, and heat in order to represent on their big night. So at 4:30, I showed up to help assemble them for the procession.
At first, the seniors were gathered in informal groups outside the staging area, taking pictures, talking, dancing about impatiently. Many called me over or waved, shouting out their names because they know my sunglasses aren’t prescription.
As they moved into the cafeteria for the staging, I wandered around, touching base, asking about plans, saying goodbye. As I’d expected, they needed teachers to organize the alphabetized lines for the procession, so I took a list of twenty. Rounded them up, hollered them into line, while the fourteen students I’d taught before joked that in less than three hours they’d never have to listen to me again. “And that’s why you became a teacher!” a bunch of them chorused.
Finally, the graduation manager gave the sign for zero hour. Suddenly well-behaved and serious, they streamed out in order, paused for a few minutes at some inevitable delay, and then the music started. Their procession took them by the stadium’s fence along the security road; I stood about 15 feet away by a barrier and put on my prescription glasses, even in the sun, the better not to miss any face. Waved and cheered at brand new adults who waved and cheered back, glad I was there, happy to see me, happy that I was wearing my glasses and could see them. And when the last student–one of mine–turned for one final smile, I decided that the graduation itself, the heat, the speeches, the names, would dull the joy I felt in this moment. Time to go.
As I walked back to the Starbucks where I’d parked my car, latecomers were hustling to the stadium, many holding signs and pictures. I saw pictures I knew, stopped to congratulate the parents and send them on their way. And suddenly:
“Hey, it’s my geometry teacher!”
I looked at the pretty, lively young woman holding a…toddler? infant? gurgling happily walking towards me, waving. Smiled, running through the names of the only other geometry class I taught and coming up blank.
“You don’t remember me? I’m Annie!” and I gasped.
“Oh, my god. Annie! I thought…I haven’t run into you for so long…you didn’t go back to live with your mom? I don’t think I’ve seen you in..three years? I didn’t recognize you. You’re all grown up! How’s your dad? You look fantastic. And how’s this little guy? How old is he, fifteen months?”
“Nope, just nine months.”
“He’s gorgeous. How are you? Come to see the grad…well, duh, yes.”
She laughed, and hitched the baby to her other hip. “It’s great you came! I still think about that geometry class. It was so fun!”
“I wish I’d run into you more. Go, get going, you don’t want to be late. Take care of this adorable one. I’m happy to see you.”
“Me, too. Take care. Bye!” and off she went, striding confidently into her future. I watched her, thinking of all the questions I wanted to ask: did she graduate? Go to our excellent alternative high school? Is the baby’s dad in the picture? What are your plans? and being so very glad I didn’t.
I resist presenting Annie as a tragedy. I didn’t feel guilt, watching her walk away. But I did feel…awareness, maybe? I’m good with unmotivated underachieving boys. Am I as good with girls? Could I be reach out more? Give them reasons to try, to play along?
I remember telling that ed school professor that the two sentiments don’t follow. I am satisfied. I can try to do better.
Goodbye, class of 2016.
Goodbye, geometry class. Next year is my first without my touchstone group. I’ll miss you.
I want you to go forth and live happy, productive lives. Please know that for the past four years, your presence has been a big part of mine.