At the end of every school year, I’m surprised to find myself in a blubbery state of raw emotion, desperate to find the right words to say goodbye — to thank my kids’ teachers.
I don’t accost them in the hallway, throw my arms around them and say goodbye through gushing tears. That would be wacky and earn me a reputation I’m not ready to own. But for at least a brief moment, I consider doing just that. I fight the feeling that our family is suffering a loss that goes far beyond, “Have a great summer!”
Nope, I play it cool. I try to find a moment to thank them, encourage my kids to hand something to them — a note, flowers or something of that nature. It’s a small gesture, one I hope they receive 25 times over from each child they nurtured throughout the year.
I once attributed my teary state to watching my kids growing, seeing the numbered grades pass, watching them march toward independence and adulthood.
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This year I received a jarring clue and an a-ha moment of insight into this complicated connection I feel with these adults who spend their days watching after my children. On the day after school, we received the message that my son’s second-grade teacher had passed away.
It’s been four years since he was in her class. She retired a couple years later, so we haven’t even seen her for two years.
“Oh my, that’s sad,” I thought. Later, I added to my sentiment, “So sad.”
Later that evening, I went to an outdoor concert. As I sat under the nighttime sky, listening to music, a flood of tears came. I felt much closer to this woman than logic would have suggested. My sense of personal loss grew. It was that same last-day-of-school sadness, but intensified. In this moment, my understanding grew.
Author Elizabeth Stone wrote, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” What a simple way of explaining the complicated connection we have with our children. When they head out into the world, we send with them the most vulnerable piece of ourselves. The piece where feelings can be hurt, impulses run rampant, where we hide our hurts and guard our joy.
My elementary school children spent five hours a day, nine months out of the year, in the care of their teachers. Their teachers are my eyes and ears, my only glimpse into what my children are when away from me. I handed these people my heart and trusted them to care for it.
It’s a terribly lopsided connection. The teachers know my children, but I’m just an acquaintance. But a teacher’s actions provide me backup to my hardest job. They’re a positive force for my child when I’ve had a rushed, impatient morning. They let me know when my child is struggling. While I’m off making my little corner of the world turn ’round, my heart is in caring, capable hands. Their care for my child is a layer of safety and protection — for that which is nearest to my own heart.
We said goodbye to one of these caretakers this week — a sad reminder that teachers are not superhumans, just vulnerable humans like the rest of us. They just happen to provide superhero services.
Overland Park mom Emily Parnell writes alternate weeks. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @emilyjparnell