As a high school teacher, this time of year can come with a swirl of emotions. On one hand, the end of the school year is near and summer, for most, always carries a lighter and less stressful load. At the same time, the melancholy creeps in as well because the end of the year also means saying goodbye to a group of kids who you have literally watched grow up in front you. The hope is that you have made a difference for them during some truly formative years.
Perhaps why I am thinking about this tonight is because I just got home from the senior prom. For the last 12 years, I have been a teacher at Nazareth Academy High School, an all-girls high school in Northeast Philadelphia and tonight was my third senior prom.
Prom is an interesting event to attend as an adult. You find yourself people watching the kids, perhaps trying to find a glimpse of your younger self. The most striking thing however, is seeing the girls dressed to the nines and being hit with the realization that they are adults now.
One of the great things about working at a private school like Nazareth is the ability to form relationships with students that go beyond the classroom. We are their teachers, coaches, trusted advisors, safe haven in times of tumult, and, at times, shoulders to cry on. For four of the most formative years of our students’ lives, we are a constant for them and them for us and it is a mutually beneficial relationship.
The funny thing is that after graduation, many never return and you only hear from them or about them on social media. And that can happen with the kids you were the closest to.
That’s not a bad thing. Most teachers want the best for their students and growing up often means leaving things and people of your youth behind.
Others, some who I taught over 10 years ago, I hear from all the time and it is great to witness their professional and personal successes.
Like most people, there have been days over the last 12 years when there were things I would have preferred to be doing besides being at work and there have been things about work that have annoyed me over the years. The one thing that has never annoyed me is the girls that I have been and am privileged to teach. They are truly some of my favorite people in the world and I am often in awe of just how cool they are.
In truth, I feel very lucky to be doing the work I do, even if I might not always have expected to be where I am. Honestly, if you had told me when I was 20 that I would work in a place where dance parties randomly break out, I wouldn’t have believed you. That being said, I am glad that I do.
Whether they stay in or lose touch with us in the future, the bond that they have with us in high school is real. For me, I feel like I have 400 little sisters. I have seen the tremendous spirit these girls bring to the hallways every day and I see the stress they go through. For many, it is normal high school stress. For others, it is stress that no high school kid should have to bear.
When thinking about the advice that I would give our graduates as they move on to the next stage of their lives, I recall the things that they worried about the most over the last four years. First and foremost, a majority of the kids I teach stress about school work above all else. Academically, Nazareth is a rigorous college preparatory environment and the kids feel the pressure to thrive.
To that end I offer this: never let school get in the way of your education. What I mean by this is that I believe high school students often worry so much about getting a good grade that truly valuable lessons in life can be missed. Grades are important, but they are not the only important thing in high school and the opportunity to learn new things shouldn’t be passed upon simply because students aren’t getting a grade on it.
The second (perhaps first depending on the day) biggest concern is about their social and dating lives. I worry often that some are in such a rush to grow up so fast that they don’t stop to enjoy just being a kid. A wise colleague told me recently that she tells her children that they only get to be a kid for 20 years and after that it is a long haul of adulthood so they might as well enjoy it.
I couldn’t agree more.
So often I see our girls stressing over friendships and burgeoning relationships with boys and I wish I could tell them to just slow down. Actually I do tell them to slow down. There is a time and a place for everything. I want them to know that if they are smart, the friendships they make in high school can become some of the most important of their lives. I also want them to know that the petty things that can ruin friendships in high school will be truly inconsequential when they are adults.
I want them to know that they will fall in love and that they will be valued. They don’t need to rush it. Dating is as much about finding out about oneself as it is the other person. If you are too in love with the idea of being in love, you can really miss opportunities to learn about yourself and the things that you truly want.
Finally, the best piece of advice that I would pass along is for them to try and see themselves the way that I and a vast number of my colleagues see them. They are wonderful people. They have blessed our lives by letting us be a part of theirs. Despite this fact, too many struggle to see the light they bring into the world.
One story that I often find myself repeating to my students is the story of the first date that I had with my wife. A first date can be like the opening rounds of a championship fight. Both participants are both trying to feel each other out without making any huge mistake that gets them knocked out early.
In the midst of this mandatory small talk that ensues in the getting to know you phase of a first date, my future wife asked me a very pointed question.
“So, what are you looking for in a girl,” she queried.
I paused for a moment to consider the question before offering the most honest response of my life. “Honestly,” I said. “I’m just looking for the female version of myself. I like me and think it would be cool to hang out with someone like me.”
Now I am not so naïve as to not realize how obnoxious that remark sounds on the written page, but I believe that there is a pearl of wisdom in it for my students. If you don’t like yourself, what is the incentive for anyone else to like you?
It is a good thing to like yourself. Being happy with who you are is one of the most important things one can do in life. At the end of the day I hope that is the thing that all of my Nazareth girls find.