LAYERS OF CLAY
As I walked across the parking lot looking down into Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, a stunning winter sunset of swirling reds lingered in the distance beyond the building in which I’ve spent thousands of hours working as a college educator. The awesome sky, sharp like fire, added to the poignancy of my last days in this role. The final finals were underway and would soon be gone like the light of day.
The late day sky brought to mind Edvard Munch’s famous painting The Scream, just one of many human creations I’ve professed about in a decade of teaching social sciences at a handful of colleges. Munch captured a moment of private terror in The Scream. The unbridled optimism of his era was giving way to anxiety and ultimately terror in a world where technology had not solved but rather was enhancing the problems of humanity.
The Scream represents an existential crisis set against the backdrop of beautiful, even tranquil, nature. As I looked up at that sunset ablaze, I considered my own personal crossroads, knowing that I would soon step away from an identity and place long held. The future ain’t what it used to be, but one thing I know for certain is the place my students have and will always hold in my heart.
In the world of education, teachers represent a constant, and it is the students who come and go. Thousands of learners have walked in and out of my classrooms. Now as I make the grand exit I find myself thinking about all the people I’ve met over the years, the faces that have looked to me for answers, some of which I had, many of which I did not.
What do I want to say to a decade’s worth of students? Difficult to put into words, that, but here goes…
You’ve inspired me.
So many of you have fought to overcome learning and life challenges. You have been willing to question your own assumptions while forcing me to open up within mine. You have stretched beyond the identity you entered the room with and found a heart for people who do not look, sound, or think like you.
Things got heated at times, sure, but we never went to blows even if the room did get close a couple times. Passion tends to do that. You respected the environment and, for the most part, each other, even when you disagreed. The essential thing to learning is a willingness to be wrong, a lesson we’ve often learned together.
You’ve defined me.
Educators often fashion ourselves into stars at the center of an overblown hero culture. Admittedly, the front of a classroom is a stage for me. Once stepped upon, I play a role, a character who’s an extension of myself. You have been a gracious audience, but I hope the role I’ve played has always been true, and I hope I never used my position as a bully pulpit.
We are human and therefore needy. We desire security in the knowledge of love and a meaningful identity. You have granted me such security with each compliment and kindness, with each attentive hour, with each appreciative smile.
You’ve walked through loss with me.
Let’s be honest, it hasn’t always been a breeze. We’ve been tested in more ways than one. Sometimes I’ve come up short, and so have you.
I’ve lost some of you to a host of things. Some of you gave up on yourselves. Some of you stopped believing in what you could do. A couple of you were taken out by small-minded cowards who ripped you down into their ambitionless pits. But some of you also broke out of your own personal prisons through the learning we shared.
One of you was murdered, killed for simply taking a late bus home after an evening of hard studying because you refused to stay in an environment of failure. Our textbook was in your backpack. One of the last things you studied were the ideas we shared in class. I had to break the news to the rest of you, explaining that the kind young man in the front row who everyone liked would not be back. He was dead. The moment hung heavy. We wrestled with whatever lesson we were supposed to learn from the tragedy.
You’ve helped me survive.
How many times have I strode towards the room with mountains of problems crushing down on me? How many bad phone calls have I taken only minutes before our sessions? How many days have I fought bitter and negative thoughts in the moments before entering your presence?
I went through one of the toughest challenges of my life only a few years ago, a Claypocalypse of failure and ending. For months, I lingered in a daze yet got out of bed each day because there was work to be done. You were in those uncomfortable chairs, notebooks on your desks, waiting for me. I never stopped showing up because you never did. Our classroom became a shelter. A sanctuary. Salvation.
Your presence has been life-giving.
We teachers often get frustrated and can stop feeling the spark. But teaching is a privilege and students are a gift. The longer you go in this profession the less you say things like that, but your passion reinvigorates me.
I can’t tell you how much it meant when you told me you used to hate history, but now you love it; when you described the long conversations you had with friends and family about life and politics and society because of our class; when you forced yourself to consider why you believe what you believe; when you called me a great teacher; when you shook my hand after completing the last exam and said all those kind words; when you thanked me for making you not hate your first semester in college.
You’ve injected my life with meaning.
I’ve kept every note, card, and many of the emails you’ve sent me as reminders that each of us can make a difference in someone else’s life. Even me.
Some of you changed your career path, the very course of your life, because of what you experienced during our time together. Some of you chose to become teachers and are now making a difference in the lives of your own students. We are part of an ever-growing tree, our influence like branches to produce fruit in the lives of others.
You’ve taught me so much.
Here’s the secret about most teachers, at least at the college level. We’re often just a step ahead of you. Barely even that at times. I’ve learned more in prepping one course than I did during entire undergraduate semesters as a student. And when you poked and prodded and inquired I had to learn even more.
I remember a student from Kenya who sat in the front row of my very first U.S. History 2 class. After the lecture you came to me concerned about being able to keep up since it was your first day ever not in Africa and I was talking about unfamiliar people and places in an unfamiliar language.
“Don’t quit,” I remember saying. “I’m learning too. Stick with me and we’ll get through this.” You stayed and got an A.
You have meant a great deal to me.
I could write a book about how much you’ve meant to me.
We have laughed so much.
We have questioned.
We have answered.
We have wondered and experienced wonder.
You often send me messages months or years later saying, “You probably don’t remember me…”
But I always remember you and will not forget you.
We may not meet again, but I still see you in my memories. Remember what we said about what history is. It’s memory, how we recall experiences. I told you all on day one that you cared about history even if you didn’t think so because we care about our own story. Now we are part of a shared personal history, and despite my shortcomings I have always cared.
I will always recall my days among you with warmth and affection, some of the best of my life to be sure.
I wish the biggest and best things for you.
Seek truth. Never lose hope. Challenge yourself and others. Wherever you go and whatever you do, leave a mark. Be a crater. Make a positive impact. Alter the landscape of someone else’s life.
You’ve already altered my life in amazing ways. I am forever grateful. Thank you for letting me be your teacher.
Yours in truth and with a full heart,