Today was graduation day for the 8th graders at my school. It was bittersweet, as these moments always are. Many I will never see again; others, perhaps too often. For some, it will be their final graduation before the thorns of life choke them out of school altogether. Still, it was a day to celebrate, and an honor to share it with the marvelous people many of my former students have grown to be.
I don't think I could ever adequately communicate how much my kids touch my life, how they unwittingly shaped me into the man I've become. While I taught them similes and square roots, they taught me compassion and perseverance. They've made me laugh when I wanted to cry, they've helped me find sunlight when I was fondling through darkness. I will always feel that I've failed them in some way as a teacher, that I wasn't kind enough, or that I coddled them too much. That I didn't push them hard enough, or let them know how important they were to me, their teacher, when they needed to hear it most.
These feelings are the cords of a whip that will always find new skin to tear on my back. It's why, every September, I will always look at each new classroom of bright-eyed, blue-shirted students with a sense of grand opportunity and sheer terror. I know what the future holds: great promise, but certain failure. And it's my job to prepare them for both, to make them believe that anything they dream, they can also make a reality. But also to brush the dirt off their knees when they fall and hold them up when they're weak.
At today's ceremony, part of the program was devoted to an unofficial "class song." It was "The Climb" by Miley Cyrus. Taken at face-value, it would seem an odd or even corny choice, but for my kids, my students, my school... me, it was the most appropriate way to bring this chapter of life to a close. These students were my 6th-graders two years ago, when I was a second-year TFA teacher, acclimated enough to the practice of teaching to hold my own in a classroom of knuckleheads and still young enough to relate, but green to the starkest realities of my job. It was the year that I probably grew the most as a teacher, and, perhaps, when I felt most passionate about teaching. That year I realized how much power I held in a single stick of chalk, and how much potential was stuffed into each desk in front of me.
But the past two years haven't been easy. I've been forced to meet the reality of my situation; I am a young teacher of inner-city youth in a broken community of broken expectations. I've buckled under the pressure of trying to be too much to too many, and the shame of knowing that I've not done enough for a simple few. I've dealt with the death of a former student, by suicide, and the memories of how I could have done more are needles that will poke at the walls of my heart forever.
So while Miley Cyrus may seem an odd source of comfort and inspiration, these four years teaching--shoot, my life in general--have been a climb. But if I've learned anything, it's that there's always gonna be another mountain, and I'm always gonna wanna make it move. It's always gonna be an uphill battle, and sometimes I'm gonna have to lose. It's not about how fast I get there or even what's waiting on the other side. In the end, all that matters is the climb.
So in a way, tonight marked a personal graduation of sorts. It's been four years since I sat in the heat of Brookings Quadrangle, the untold promises of a world of verdant opportunity awaiting like the view into Forest Park. I left a place of blinding opportunity to make my home in a city where it sometimes seems you'd see more light if you just kept your eyes closed. It hasn't been easy. In fact, it has been and continues to be the hardest thing I've ever done. And it's why I'm still doing it. I've never wanted to do anything else. Because the climb is worth it.
When Tytiana-- the girl in that pic up there that thinks she's grown now (and also one of my all-time favorite students)--was a sixth-grader in my class, she used to joke saying, "It's real out here, Mr. Garr," her chubby cheeks filled with eleven years of innocence as she grinned. It was her excuse sometimes when I asked her why she did something we both knew she had no business doing. But it was also a lil more than that. It was her explanation for the facts of life that didn't need explaining, that sometimes you do the things you do simply because you've got to. It was an acknowledgement that reality makes life difficult, and in dealing with reality we can make bad choices because they help us cope with those difficulties.
But that cheeky grin told me something else. It told me that there is no shame in failure because no amount of losses can equal defeat unless you allow them that victory. And it's a lesson--one of many--that I will take with me as I close this chapter and begin a new one.