I haven’t really begun to process all the emotions that have been coming up for me as I think about the end of this school year, specifically because my daughter (who just turned 6) is moving on to a new school, on to first grade. She started coming here when she was just 2 and a half. She has spent more than half of her life within the walls of this school. She has been barefoot the majority of the time, hanging in the branches of our beloved olive tree, and making meaningful connections with so many children and teachers. She has lived here…really lived. She has dug her hands into the work of childhood- come home painted, sandy, exhausted, full of new wonderings. Her confidence has flourished, and her voice has strengthened. Her stories have been heard and shared and cherished.
Whenever I really contemplate the reality of her departure, I well up…and a bubble of grief mounts in my heart. How have these years flown by so fast, and how did her once petite stature give way to the long and lean girl who stands in front of me now? How can this be the end already?
A couple weeks ago, my girl and I went to see her friend perform in a local children’s production of The Little Mermaid. I knew a few children who were in the play because they had been in my class when I was a teacher, and I loved seeing them up on that stage. But I was dumbfounded after the play was over when a woman came to me and said “Sara, hi! Nice to see you again! Did you recognize Emme up there?”
During the play I remember thinking how wonderful the lead actress was…she was about 10 or 11, and sang and acted with charm and grace. She was wearing a long red wig of course, à la Ariel, so naturally her appearance was drastically different when she removed it to uncover her blonde locks. She was an alumni of our school and I couldn’t believe how much she had grown…of course I recognized her! My mind was flooded with memories of the 4-year- old version of her. She was funny, bright, clever and developed a particular fondness for a hat that looked like a stuffed buffalo head. I remember, with clarity, a very specific picture of her wearing it- looking like she was about to charge whoever was taking the photo of her.
As I congratulated her, and gushed about how talented I thought she was, she smiled and seemed grateful. It became quite clear that her memories of me were fuzzy at best, and when I said “I was your teacher a long time ago” the light of recognition didn’t seem to glow behind her eyes. I didn’t take this personally, of course, and I definitely recall the overwhelming atmosphere that occurs post play, when many faces are swimming all around you to pat you on the back and congratulate you. I was a drama kid, after all. She thanked me and ran off with a friend, and that was that.
I didn’t feel defeated after our little exchange, I felt curious. I felt like a seed was planted in my mind and as I began to really reflect on it, questions started growing.
What is our impact as teachers of young children?
How does our relationship with each child guide them through their inevitable transition out into the “real” world?
What really matters most? The experiences children have here, or the memories they have of those experiences?
After they leave this place, what do they carry with them?
As I continue to reflect on these questions I think about what I know about children. Children, of course, are mindful by nature. They are present and aware and engaged. When they are in it, THEY ARE IN IT. They experience the world with all their senses attuned. They are intuitive, empathic and industrious. I look at the children at play in our yard and I see so much going on that it’s difficult to keep track of the multitude of collective experiences they are having. On any given day (actually more like, at any given moment) you can see children involved in worthwhile things like building together, playing family, cooking in our mud kitchen, helping our garden teacher, Shannon, harvest something new, laying in the shade of our trees, chasing each other wildly, sitting on the hill listening to stories, carving riverscapes in the sand, filling buckets, collecting treasures, testing out their newly folded paper airplanes, or putting on a show.
Maybe to some this looks like frivolity, or “wasting time” but to the children who are invested in these experiences, they are deeply meaningful.
My intent is not to idealize, or paint a totally utopian picture of childhood, of course. There are shared experiences that are meaningful for entirely different reasons that occur on a daily basis here too. Conflict and sadness are woven into the fabric of everyday. Especially in this last week of school…there is a palpable restless and anxious energy that hangs in the air as teachers and kids prepare for saying goodbye. Everyone is tired, and the children who are moving on to kindergarten are acutely aware of the looming transition.
I was discussing some of these things with a colleague recently, and she shared some of her feelings about the very real emotional impact that the work we do has…how heavy it can feel sometimes. She also shared how encouraged she felt when another colleague of ours shared some pictures that beautifully captured the connections that the children have made with each other here this year…and those connections are what the children internalize and carry out the door when they leave. In the bustle of working together, it is easy to forget the significance of ordinary moments that the children have on a day to day basis, and how these bonds and relationships inform the people that they are continually blossoming into. And just like they don’t remember the experience of being born, or their first birthday, that doesn’t mean those events didn’t hold value and worth. Remembering them is secondary to living them.
It is these personal narratives that the children unfold (I almost imagine them as petals blooming out of a flower) that become such an integral part of WHO they are. And that cannot be diminished or undone. So even if we are forgotten, we will always be a part of each other’s story.
No goodbyes necessary.