I have realized that this day has been coming for a while now.
Thirty-three years ago, I drove south to North Carolina in my maroon Dodge Shadow, excited and incredibly anxious about beginning my first year teaching at Ralph L. Fike High School in Wilson. I drove that Dodge Shadow until the engine began to smoke and the paint began to lose color. I left the comfortable confines of the Ohio Valley with sadness and joy, unaware of how my entire teaching adventure and life would unroll. Wondering how the teaching adventure would eventually end was the farthest thing from my mind.
Eleven years ago, I drove back north, returning to West Virginia, in my powder-blue Ford Explorer, the ride my brother Jim said would be perfect for me. I returned to my alma mater Central Catholic High School in Wheeling, where the world of the Ohio Valley and I were still similar yet completely different. I knew this was the last stop on my teaching adventure. Honestly, what better way to end than life coming full circle? Wondering exactly how my adventure would end weighed at the forefront of my mind and the bottom of my heart.
Five years became six. Six become seven, eight, nine, and then ten. Here I am at eleven years, seeing the signs, reliving the memories, swallowing the blood pressure meds, and wondering about all things existential.
Braden was one of my students this year. In March, he sent me this email from the Stoic website he follows. He thought I would enjoy it. I don't know why. Was it something I said in one of our conversations or how I talked about life in classes? Who knows. Does it even matter? We cannot anticipate or even question the vessels God chooses to send us messages we need to hear.
So I read this quote by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor from 161 to 180 AD and a Stoic philosopher:
“You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred—what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction.
And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in—why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor:
“But I’ve only gotten through three acts . . . !”
Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine.
So make your exit with grace—the same grace shown to you.”
This quote is from the last chapter of the great philosopher's Mediations. He refers to death; we have only a certain amount of time in this world, and we should understand that we have no control over when it ends. But the quote can find its rightful place in many conversations about life.
As a teacher, I always look at each year as a different story to be experienced. This is one of the enduring cool things about being a teacher. New students. New experiences. New struggles. New celebrations. Life is always a roller coaster from August to June. And so I have filled these huge poster boards with pictures from previous years. These posters have hung prominently in my classroom, my corner of the world, for the past eleven years. Current and future students always look at them, wondering where they will be on the board once they graduate.
I see the pictures on the board differently from my students, though. I see the pictures of students I have taught. However, I also see them for what so many have become: lawyers, chefs, members of the military, doctors, businessmen, teachers, physical therapists, welders, and so many more. Much like their parents, I am amazed how each grew from being such a quiet worker, a crazy knucklehead, or an honor roll student into this incredible adult. I am immensely grateful to have been a part of the great stories I have witnessed over the years, each unique and special in its own way.
School is more than desks, chairs, Chromebooks, and bells sending us from one place to another. I have been blessed to be a part of two wonderful school communities at Fike High School and Central Catholic High School. I have had many colleagues with whom I have shared incredible experiences, growing as educators and friends. I have taught so many students that my picture boards are filled to their capacity. I am blessed. Truly blessed.
Braden and I are both "citizens in a great city," and time and destiny have brought us both to the same place where we make our graceful exit. Braden is our salutatorian this year and is hopefully planning his graduation speech as I write this. He is heading to the University of Notre Dame upon graduation, where he will continue his story. I am heading to my porch to read a good book, tend to my yard full of plants and flowers, and take Charlie-Bear for a long walk in the cool morning. I can hop in my newest Explorer to visit the grandkids in North Carolina or wherever the road takes me. I will be carrying plenty of memories and stories along with me as my journey continues.