Almost every morning I speak to little Kathleen. She is not in school yet, but she rides along most mornings with her older brother who is in kindergarten. Buckled securely in her car seat, she is barely able to peer around all the protection, the most adorable little package one could imagine. She never speaks to me, but she usually grins with baby teeth as I poke my head into the window. As the car begins to move away, she holds her hand up and squeezes it into a little fist to say goodbye. She’s already gained “teacher’s pet” status in my heart.
Goodbye is one of the first gestures we learn in life, and young children, while not grasping it completely, come to understand that goodbye means that some things in life disappear. For Kathleen, I disappear every day. The next morning, there I am, back on the curb, just like the day before.
For the class of 2021, more important things are passing away. In just over a month, this wonderful class will wave their last goodbyes to us. Graduation is the official end of childhood and the beginning of young adulthood. Each one of them is straining to see what’s ahead, preparing to move to the next chapter of their lives. They may not be so acutely aware that this goodbye is filled with more emotion than that which heaved us on their first day of kindergarten.
Forty years ago, I was a college freshman, and I have vivid memories of my mother driving me to the university. I did not realize it at the time, but little did I know that I would never return home to live again; it would be a place I only went back to visit. The excitement of the day was more than I could bear. I was like a dog leaning out of the car window with tongue flying in the breeze, anticipating that my final destination was the greatest dog park ever. And then we were on campus, rushing to check the mailbox, running to register for classes, which one had to do in person in the days before computers. Moving into the dorm. Orientation. Amidst all the energy and commotion, nearly overwhelmed with the newness of the experience, it had not occurred to me to plan that last goodbye. It caught me by complete surprise.
Mom and I were between appointments, standing on the sidewalk in middle of the campus with hundreds of people coming and going, none of whom we knew. As I contemplated being on time to the next necessary thing, I suddenly realized that it would be a lengthy meeting. By the time it ended in late afternoon, it would be time for dinner, but mother would be gone, headed home on a ten-hour journey back to Florida, leaving her youngest child to fend for himself.
That was the moment I awkwardly realized that “goodbye” had come. Right there, in public, in broad daylight, with all those people rushing by. Eighteen years of life were suddenly compressed into a few brief moments, bursting with unexpected emotion. One chapter in life abruptly closed, seamlessly passing into the next. We looked at each other and embraced. Of course, she cried. I turned to go. She just stood on the sidewalk and watched me walk away into my future.
Perhaps I have paid attention to the class of 2021 a little more closely than others (full disclosure: my youngest is in this class). For me the whole bunch of them are teacher’s pets. I have come to love them as my own. And now we come to that ever-recurring time of year —graduation—to the “goodbye” season. They are preparing to walk out into their own futures. Eighteen years of life once again compress into a short space. After forty years I am still standing on the sidewalk, with people coming and going, dropping their little ones at the curb, rushing off to do the next necessary thing. Those formerly car-seated seniors are now driving themselves, strolling across the circle. This time, however, I won’t be caught short. I will be ready; ready to bid goodbye to the class of 2021.