I have spent the week having flashbacks to a Friday in 2001 when I sobbed in my classroom. It was the middle of March and I was leaving my teaching job to accompany my future husband on his Navy orders to San Diego. There is plenty to debate about my personal decision to leave mid-year, but that’s far from the point of this piece.
My students and I had plenty of time to prepare for our goodbye—and still, we wept and hugged as I tried to impart as much encouragement and wisdom as I could in those final moments. And to this day—19 years later—all the notes they wrote to me in the spiral-bound book that was passed around during my last days, sit inside my nightstand. I pull it out from time to time and still, my emotions come to the surface within seconds.
I was not even thirty yet. I was not a mother yet. And that school was my life. I cannot pretend to know how this would feel to my 46-year-old self, but I’d imagine that some of that same sadness would be filling up my heart.
Because of COVID-19, so many students and teachers find themselves separated with virtually no warning at all and no real opportunity to say goodbye. They do not know when they’ll see each other again, with many keenly aware that their time together in a classroom this year may be over for good. I choke up just writing it.
I know this may sound like hyperbole or a bit overly dramatic to some. And I get that. Not everybody gets emotionally attached to the people they work with or to the place where they spend their days. But in seeing just a small smattering of commentary from teachers and parents, we err if we underestimate the feeling of loss that so many feel. My youngest son flopped face down on the couch when he considered that it’s his last year at his school and he may not get to return.
For students, the structure and routine of spending their days with their teachers came to a grinding halt, the school rug essentially ripped out from under their little feet. Their daily rituals, the special words exchanged between teacher and student, the resilience they were learning, the encouragement they were used to absorbing throughout the day with just a look, a note on the top of their paper, a high-five, a fist-bump, a hug.
There are so many reasons why this upheaval is so hard for students and the adults who love them. Athletes suddenly lost in-person access to their coaches and teammates. Students poised to take the stage on the opening night of their school musicals suddenly lost face-time with their directors and the rest of the cast who have been like family for months. Students with disabilities who rely on extra support, tough love and compassion from their special education specialists suddenly find themselves in a world without those invaluable people.
Students and teachers and school leaders will settle into a new normal until the old normal, inevitably changed in some ways, returns. For many educators, the challenge and even grief of being separated from their students has largely taken a back-seat to preparing lessons for what is for most of them, a new world of distance learning.
As one teacher says at the end of a letter to her students,
No matter what the rest of this year brings, know you will forever be a part of my heart.
So let’s be kind. Let’s extend grace. And let’s check on our children who may really be missing school and their teachers, but don’t know quite how to say it. There’s a very good chance that their teachers are hurting too.
Saying goodbye is hard. Not being able to say goodbye might be harder.