Monday, March 19, 2012
Getting a Grip on Letting Go
(Written in 2010 upon the graduation of my first class of seniors.)
As an undergrad, I always wondered how my teachers did it—how they said goodbye to us semester after semester without shedding a tear. How they could change into shorts after convocation and head to the beach without even a backward glance at the students who had just disappeared out of their lives. Weren’t they sad that we were leaving, or afraid that others would come and make them forget us? Or did they actually want to forget us?
Now that I’m on the other side of the desk as a teacher, I’ve embraced this essential truth: for both students and teachers, college is a place where goodbyes are drafted the moment you say hello.
During my first year of teaching, I instructed mostly freshmen and sophomores, students who weren’t going anywhere soon. But when I began teaching upper level writing classes, I forged significant relationships with the students, especially my seven seniors. Though I wasn’t much older than they were, those few years provided enough distance for me to regard them with maternal care, affectionately dubbing them ‘my kids.’
By the spring semester, I had grown so close to my kids that even thinking of them leaving made my heart feel hollow. For no apparent reason, the Wednesday before midterms acutely reminded me of graduation’s proximity—acutely enough to propel me into a melancholic stupor.
Refusing to wallow pathetically in my office, I walked to my car, deciding to wallow pathetically somewhere else. Clearly, my sullen soul needed a drink, more specifically a bottle of green apple Jones soda—no, make that two; it was, undoubtedly, a two bottle day.
Just outside the front gate, the wad of emotion in the back of my throat began to slowly unfold, choking me. Typically, with the distraction of the radio or of people in the surrounding cars, I can redirect my emotions away from my tear ducts. That day, I didn’t even want to try.
Seventy days from graduation, I indulged in a full blown pity party, thinking of them, my regalia-clad kids, walking across the stage and out of my life. Already, I missed seeing their faces peek into my office window, watching their heads droop in shame as I collected everyone else’s manuscript, hearing them call my name across campus, listening to their quirky muses, and proudly claiming them as mine when others might look cockeyed at their eccentric antics.
Is this what it feels like, I sniffled, for parents to put a Barbie lunchbox in their little girl’s hand or a Superman backpack on their son’s back and wave goodbye through a bus window? Is this what parents suffer when they stare dolefully at the back window of a car stuffed with dorm accessories or filled with wedding balloons?
One and a half bottles later, I sought relief from a real Source of comfort—God, the Expert at letting go of people He loves. He responded to my plea for consolation by first making me accept that in two months these students would leave and, what’s more, that others would come and others would go. I already knew, of course, that whether or not I wanted to let them go, my kids were going to drive out that gate after convocation—I just hadn’t accepted it.
Once this literal struggle had been addressed, He gently pointed out the deeper one, reminding me, I never entrusted them into your care for you to keep them, only to guide them—and, all along, that guidance was meant to direct them out the front gate.
“But away from me!” I whimpered, dramatically soaking another tissue, taking another swig.
Yes. But if they were to stay here with you, they could never find out how I want to use them.
At this, my tears hiccupped to a stop. He was right. Holding them here would mean withholding them from adventure, from His provision, from trials and triumphs—from life. Life, after all, was what they needed to discover. Only through living life to its fullest would they find the inspiration to become the writers He's called them to be.
He assured me, You know that if you let them go, they’re going to be in good Hands.
Draining the bottle of its sour green liquid, I released the grip in my heart. “Okay, God. I’ll let them go.” I drew a deep breath before committing to the next part—the hardest part. “I won’t even want to hold them here.”
As I drove back onto campus, peace filled me, emanating from the comfort that God had created out of my emotional chaos. But, as if that peace weren’t enough, He offered a second solace—to match my second bottle of soda.
Just because you have to free them doesn’t mean you have to forget them.
As the simplicity of His comfort shamed my newly calmed soul, I shook my head. Why hadn’t I noticed this obvious consolation earlier—before giving myself a glucose-induced headache with that second bottle of Jones?
Walking back into my office to prepare for the final classes of the day, I thanked God that I wasn’t required to clean out my heart along with my office at the end of the semester; that I wouldn’t have to dispose of my memories along with the drafts of their compositions; that He’d understand if I burst into tears on the beach following convocation, or sniffled in a silent classroom as my kids drove out the front gate.
After four years of saying goodbye to students, I’m finally getting a grip on letting go, but I’m always thankful for that place in my heart where I can hold onto my kids forever.