It is another season of goodbye.
I packed up my car, gave the sink a final scrub, and headed west through the cornfields. I’ve wrote about goodbyes a lot on this blog, so here we go again. There is never enough time to see everyone, to visit all the places I meant to go, to have one last night of dinner and drinks. Goodbyes always feel inadequate. Sometimes I think it’s better just to leave.
My first stretch of driving was 14 and a half hours. It sounds terrible, and sometimes it is, but sometimes I arrive at my sister’s house and wish I still had a couple hundred miles to go. There’s something inexplicably fulfilling about these trips—driving by myself, playlists on loop, left leg bent butterfly-style on the seat. My mind wanders. My car goes onward. I am just existing and breathing, hurtling through the countryside in a rusty metal box with all of my beloved possessions inside. There’s something zen about it all. Besides, when you drive 14 and a half hours, it means that you’ll always catch sunset and that’s the best time to highway drive.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll miss this, the times when it was just me and my car, and I could drive for as long as I wanted and never stop for food and listen to the same songs on repeat. I know there will come a time when driving 14 and a half hours is no longer feasible, and it is a strange feeling to miss something before it’s gone, to shade the moment with nostalgia while you are still existing inside of it.
On long drives, you think a lot. You think and dream and remember. You make plans for the future, and think about every time you felt hurt this past year. You dredge up people from the past who should probably stay buried. You imagine parties that will never happen and words that people will never say.
I thought about my students a lot on this drive. Former students, I should say. I will never hear from or see most of them ever again, and I hate that. What happens next? How does it end? What will they turn in for the essay I assigned on Othello? Will they graduate? Who will go to college? Good luck on your next chapter is the adage I’ve been hearing of late. And, yes, I am excited, and yes, it’s the right choice, but I want to know how this story ends too. I want closure, even if such a thing doesn’t exist.
I wrote personalized letters to each of my seniors before I left, which I handed out during our final class together. They remarked on the stationery, which I’d specially bought, and how their names looked in cursive. Miss, I don’t want to ruin the envelope. Miss, you’re going to make me cry. I can’t open this right now. There’d been a late-night basketball game and a school shooting threat the day before, so those two combined meant that all my classes had about 50% attendance. I’d wished they’d all been there, so I could see everyone one last time, but nothing ever ends like you think it will, and, like I said, I’m not sure how much goodbyes do to cushion the act of leaving. It was what it was. I gave them their letters and they spent most of class talking about acrylic nails.
But here are a couple. Here is what I’m taking with me:
M and C got me gifts on my last day. Is it OK if I film you opening them, one asked. Of course. She pulled out a small camcorder and told me to go ahead. They were thoughtful, lovely gifts. My favorite candy, a candle, socks, a reusable coffee mug. The receipt’s in there if you don’t like it, the boy told me. They were all from the store he worked at. Wouldn’t it be funny if I returned them all and you were the cashier? I told him. He laughed. That weekend at REI, I took a picture of the coffee mug they’d given me nestled between all of my coworkers’ stickered water bottles. I sent them the picture so that they knew I’d already used it.
M and C asked for passes to be excused from study hall so that they could sit with me in my off period. They both came to my classroom after school once they had their phones back to take pictures with me. I smiled even though you couldn’t see it beneath my mask.
I saw J at his basketball game that Saturday. He was one of those who wasn’t there my last day. He took both of my classes, meaning I saw him for over two hours every day and read all of his writing, and he was one of the few I really wanted a proper goodbye from. It was a varsity-only game, girls playing first and then the boys. He came up to me during the girl’s halftime. How was your last day? he asked. I’m still working on that essay. I know I have some work to turn in to you. He, in fact, had very little work he owed me, and he knew this, but school is easy to talk about, a guaranteed relation point. Besides, we both silently knew that I wouldn’t be the one reading any of his future submissions. We chatted briefly and then he shook my hand and returned to his team, and I think we both just didn’t know how to say goodbye.
L was also at the basketball game. She came up to me after she finished playing. I’m sorry I wasn’t in class on Friday. Our game went late the night before, and my mom told me I should just stay home, and then I remembered it was your last day. I got you a gift card, but my mom forgot to bring it. I wish you could’ve met my mom. She was just here! I’ve mentioned you to her before, how great you are and how much I enjoyed your class. We talked about the game briefly and how well she did. You’re a wonderful teacher, she told me. You should keep teaching. Keep teaching kids like us. I keep those words with me as I pack up my life and move westward. Keep teaching kids like us.
T is another one of my favorites, one of the few who I had for both classes, and I saw her from a distance at the basketball game. She didn’t come over and I didn’t push anything. I never know if I should force goodbyes. I think you and I are a lot alike, she told me in one of our last classes. I think she is right.
The thing about endings is that nothing ever really ends and closure only works if you don’t pick at the wound and there will always be unfinished stories, lingering threads, and you will realize that the easiest person to haunt is yourself.
The last time I saw V she had another girl by the braids and was throwing her against a locker; she is so smart and capable, and I want her to prove everyone wrong. And I wonder about TJ and the poetry she unearthed within herself in the final weeks of our time together, and I want her to keep digging, keep pushing, keep bringing the blackness to light. And I think about J and how she wrote dark, twisted dual POV stories, and I hope high school gets easier, and S who was struggling with depression but trying her best and doing such a good job, and P who was the best writer in her class and was trying to be very practical about college and would sometimes ask me Miss, how did you figure out what to do next, and JF who wrote an essay about the time his friend got shot in Puerto Rico and how he biked over to help, and SN who emailed me with an essay draft the week of Christmas, asking if I could look over it because she didn’t trust the new teacher yet.
And I think about all the writing I received. The writing about abuse and broken hearts and anime characters that I had to google. And I think of L standing on a desk to read out the lines from Othello and how they all hated Iago so damn much (He’s a snake, Miss!). And DJ who was so into the fan fiction he was writing for class that I watched him scribble new scenes during study hall, head bent over, focused. And the kids in study hall who would bother me because they were bored. And the students who all told me I’ll have you next semester and who I didn’t bother to correct otherwise.
It is hard to articulate how much I care about some people and how much time they spend alive inside my head.
I’m writing this in a coffeehouse in Sedona as the clouds threaten snow and a blond-haired man reads the No Fear Shakespeare version of The Tempest on a chair nearby (life is never not poetic). A student emailed me for a college reference that’s due Friday, and instead of writing that, here I am. Conclusions are the toughest part, I wrote on a student’s essay yesterday at a motel in Kansas. Like I said, nothing ever really ends, and when people tell me that this is a fresh start, a new beginning, I want to tell them that it’s really just a continuation, a natural progression for what happens next, and that I feel no particular grandeur about the moment, the move. Nothing ever really ends, it just changes form. The moment becomes a memory. The people live on inside of you.
I only have 10 hours of driving left and honestly that makes me a little sad. Sometimes I feel like I could drive forever, disappear into the earth, into my own head, swallowed by ocean and salty cliffs. When you drive long distances, at some point you run out of things to think about. You’ve done the podcasts, done the playlists, mentally relived moments a hundred times. At some point, you just drive.