Like No Other

Jun 5, 2013

This week across Montana, schoolchildren are scampering off to what they hope is endless summer.  Meanwhile their teachers close another chapter in their careers.  For some of them, it’s the last chapter.  But whether it’s the first, middle or last time, the closing of the school year is a bittersweet time for our K-12 schoolteachers.

School-teaching is a profession like no other.  You live in the high-intensity world of children and adolescents, a world full of kid-dramas that most of us have blissfully forgotten:  the loneliness of the new kid, the spats between cliques of girls, the mortification over the too-short haircut, the upset over the cruel text message, the anxiety before the first solo, the disappointment of missing that last shot on goal …  As the only adult in their world, the teacher is keeping a simmering cauldron of childhood emotions from boiling over pretty much all the time.

A teacher’s world is a restricted one.  Unlike other professions, even something as simple as using the bathroom can only happen at certain times, which is why teachers have the greatest bladder control of all professionals.  Unlike other professions, there’s no flexibility in teachers’ schedules, and they’re pretty much confined to their workplace all day.  No Rotary Club luncheons for them.  No 30-minute walk after lunch.   No putting off that unpleasant task until your energy level is higher.    Ask not for whom the bell tolls.  It tolls for thee – and, like thy students, thou best be in thy classroom by the time it stops.

For the same reasons, interactions with other adults are also pretty limited, so over time most schoolteachers work and socialize primarily with other schoolteachers.  It takes a conscious effort to broaden your circle of professional and social acquaintances, and your odd schedule works against it.

Unlike other professions, you don’t have one client at a time to provide services for.  You have 20, 30, or 150 at once, all with different personalities, different abilities, different needs and circumstances.  It can be overwhelming – for them and for you.  And unlike other professions, you don’t meet with these clients once a week or month for an hour or two.  You’re with them every day, sometimes all day long.  At school, they are your world and you are theirs … so much so that when they see you in a setting outside of school – the grocery store, the mall, the county fair – they stare at you as bewildered as if you’d been transported from the planet Krypton.

And, of course, most jobs don’t have these annual openings and closings of a chapter, first days when you meet a whole new set of clients you’ll be working with all year and last days when you say goodbye to them, pretty much forever. 

So the last days of school are bittersweet.  Yes, there’s relief to have a little while off to rest, retool your competencies, rethink your strategies, and refill that reservoir of enthusiasm and energy you need to teach.  But there’s also a sense of loss as these children you’ve come to know and care about go on to the next phase of their lives without you.

Eighteen years ago, I took my then teenage daughter Ellen to the film Mr. Holland’s Opus.  She got a sense of the teaching world she didn’t get from me, a sense of those chapters opening and closing year after year until finally the last chapter comes and you turn the last page in the book that has absorbed you your entire adult life. 

Ellen got a sense of the lives that a teacher touches – the girl who couldn’t play the clarinet, but grew up to be governor – the boy who finally got the beat but later got killed in Vietnam.  She got a sense of the fulfillment that comes from touching all of those lives.  Like me, she was moved by the final scene, when hundreds of students whose lives had been changed by Mr. Holland came back to re-assure him that, though his position had been cut, his life’s work mattered.  He had intended to be a composer, not a teacher, but he could only work on composing in between teaching tasks.  He had a finished symphony but had never seen it published, never seen it performed.  He was too busy teaching. In an auditorium crowded with his former students, the clarinet-playing governor reminded him, “We are your symphony, Mr. Holland.  We are your opus.”

As we left the theater, Ellen turned to me and said, “Is that what teaching is really like, Mom?”

“Yes,” I told her.  “All but the last scene.  Don’t expect that kind of send-off.”

No, most teachers don’t get an auditorium full of admiring parents and kids saluting their impact as they close their careers.  There is symphony in the final act.  But they are keenly aware of the symphony being played in their classrooms all along the way.  There’s harmony in seeing that the lonely kid has friends now.  There’s a grace note when the girl who runs with the mean girls finds better ways to feel valued and valuable.  There’s the trill of this one’s crazy taste in clothes and that one’s uncanny ability to imitate you.  There’s a crescendo of growing talent as all those different personalities become accomplished at all those different things.   And there’s the soaring feeling that, while you didn’t write this symphony, for a little while you get to direct it.

As this school year ends, great teachers all across Montana are looking back at another year and thinking of the lessons they’ve taught and learned from their kids.  And they’re whistling a happy tune.  There really is no other profession like it.

This is Mary Sheehy Moe, retired, but still proudly and happily a public schoolteacher at heart.