First published in June of 2011. True then. True now; and I hope you think worth a re-read too!!
As a teacher of high school seniors, come June, I am reminded daily of the almost–here graduation-day swiftly moving toward us. There is no them and me or me and them at this point, for we have all been riding on this roller-coaster of great expectations and harsh realities for an entire school year together. All over the country 18 year olds are experiencing this free-falling sensation and I for one think it is a feeling worth catching on to, but I did not start out with this appreciation. No, I most certainly did not, in fact, I did my best to stay uninfected with what I, as well as most adults, labeled senior-itis.
Every fall semester, along with the rigorous A.P. English Literature curriculum, my seniors scour college websites and pour over glossy catalogs, meet with guidance counselors, fret over finding the ‘right’ school, or in most of their cases, five or six or seven ‘right’ schools in which to apply; then write drafts of their college essay over and over, which I read and push further until together we craft something that feels like a sliver of the whole of them on paper. Then come the ACT’s and SAT’s and the completion of their applications, which means writing all those supplemental essays: short pieces that also asked students to express the impossible in 50 or less words.
By January they finish reading their fifth piece of literature for me and are filling out financial aid forms and scholarships requests, writing and rewriting all along the way. Then the wait. A long wait; but in the back of their minds they are wondering how an admission counselor is sizing them up. April is when most they receive the Yes-We-Want-You-big-packet or No-Thank-You-Very-Much-thin-letter. All the while, all along the way, I am handing them the works of Ellison, Shakespeare, Marquez, Dostoevsky, Wilde, Woolf and Miller, to read critically and respond thoughtfully and they are and do but meanwhile they are just so ready to step out of this secure place, a place they have, for many at least, known as home for all of their 18 years; in classes with the same group of friends, walking down the same plaster and brick hallways, feeling their way through high school with a strong sense of belonging.
Yet now, and this is what I am so stunned about, now, they are making plans and decisions that will march themselves right into a great unknown. Pretty daunting, don’t you think? When I left off teaching high school freshmen and made the leap to seniors about a decade ago, the dread of senioritis creeping into my classroom was akin to the plague. I just felt it lead to nothing good, and every year I did everything possible to stay clear of it.
Every April, as my seniors began to exhibit those tell-tale signs, their usually tense selves starting to relax, I’d tighten the grip, pull in the reins, you know, assign gobs more school work. But this year, this spring, when I started to notice the symptoms, I thought maybe it would be okay to sit and talk for a few minutes during class. To laugh just a bit longer with that one boy whose been nailing the jokes all year, to listen to the girls discuss their prom outfits or shoe dilemmas just a tad more. That’s when it hit me: ‘senior-itis” wasn’t some sort of nasty disease I needed to avoid, but the obvious next-step for a group of dedicated hard-working students who would, in a few short weeks, leave everything and everyone they knew behind and venture off to a whole new world alone.
This paradox stunned me. I observed their senior-itis with envy instead of dread. Could these tank-topped and short-shorts or baseball-hat and big sneaker soon-to-be-ex-students be the bravest people on the planet? Were they like astronauts, ready to go where no man has gone before? When else, besides at 18 and on the brink of graduating high school, do we court change in such an aggressive manner? When else do we take multiple three-hour comprehensive-tests and write soul-illuminating narratives all in the hope of some admission counselor somewhere sending us the big Yes?
Sitting along my long classroom table with my current seniors I saw their drive to make themselves anew with wonderment. Fearlessly they were saying yes to a whole new world of room-mates and dorm-mates and class-mates and professors’ lectures while taking on more debt than their parent’s mortgages, all without a glance backwards. Senior-itis isn’t about trying to do nothing, but, I discovered once I let myself get fully inoculated, it is about being so very ready to do something brand new, something radically different, and being a whole new different person doing it.
So this June, I let myself get as infected as possible. I thought about all the richness life might offer all of us each and every day. I thought about who I might be if I woke up in a new world and introduced myself to fifty new people within that first day. Everything is possible. I am ready, as ready as they are, to toss my hat into the air. Graduation can’t come soon enough.