Last Thursday was the last day of elementary school in our city, and my first-grade daughter alternated between summer-fun-anticipation and heartbreak about no longer seeing her adored teacher every day. I picked her up from school, and seeing all the teachers waving goodbye to the kids as we passed was more than we could take. By the time we made it to the car, my daughter was crying, I started crying because she was crying, and my other daughter started crying as well. Her last day was doubly poignant since she will be starting at a new elementary school next year – in our city, kindergarteners and first graders attend a separate school – so that will be a big change.
Happily, when we unpacked her backpack several hours later, we found a sheet with the teacher’s home address, with the suggestion that students become her penpals. My daughter got immediately to work on a letter, which said simply, “I miss you SO MUCH!!!” I’m sure her teacher will be impressed by the depth of her feelings, particularly when she had left her class only four hours earlier.
Although I’ve had a number of wonderful teachers, I felt particularly fond of, and changed by, my third grade teacher; most people seem to have such memories of a special elementary school teacher. There is something about the relationship between student and teacher in the early years that is particularly moving and powerful. Perhaps it is our first major exposure to a real authority figure other than our parents, someone who is not just babysitting; someone responsible for both our academic and social development and able, even in a packed classroom, to make us feel special and unique. Someone who – unlike a parent – is able to see our strengths and weaknesses in a more objective way. Someone who helps us find our footing in the world outside of our family, who shows us the many possible paths.
My daughter’s first grade teacher was such a teacher, and I think that’s why I was crying harder than my daughter: I know that her next teacher may not connect with her in the same way. When we send our children off to school, we want them to receive something like the love they feel at home; we want them to be accepted, encouraged, hugged, high-fived for even those small successes. When a teacher is able to do that – while also juggling the tasks of classroom life, and the similar needs of other children – it is nothing less than miraculous.
I wanted to share an excerpt from my poem, “Children,” which describes how our children bloom as they encounter new worlds:
Spring, and I watch you from my chair,
streaming electric, gathering gravity
around you like permanent planets.
I imagine the thread of your roots
wrapping this garden up tight -
each segment in the darkness
a maze of one world