There’s something completely irresolute about finals week; as such, unless explicitly directed, I avoid giving final exams. Instead, I like to leave my students thinking about the final chapter of their high school career with something less final and more… open-ended, more upbeat. I want my students to leave my literature class thinking about morals and the self–because, at least for me, that’s what literature actually is–words that express morals and self, and those concepts can’t really be tested by an end of year exam.
Last year, I wasn’t thrilled with my conclusion to the year. It felt trite, forced, sappy. This year, I hoped for something more organic.
Around March, I realized that my seniors were being buttheads. I think any of them reading this would probably agree that they exhibited some boorish behavior that can best be categorized as buttheadery. In one of our semi-routine conversations about Harry Potter, Jeremy suggested I do a house cup with my seniors. I kicked the idea around for a moment before realizing that each one of my classes as a whole (not necessarily on an individual level) exhibited some of the major qualities of each of the Hogwarts houses.
There was first period–my studious, rule abiding Ravenclaws with a good class average and outstanding class discussions.
And there was my boisterous second period–brash and bold, brave and kind Gryffindors with the perfect Fred, George, Lee Jordan combo (you know who you are).
And then there was my Ivy Leaguers, competitive and ambitious 6th period–my Slytherins who did not exhibit the racist tendencies of the Slytherin house, but only exhibited the stuck up tendencies of Slytherin when trying to “act their house” for class points. They wrote themselves a theme song.
And then my 8th period–bless them–my Hufflepuffs. Academically “easy-going” but exceptionally kindhearted, and good at finding things (well not great at finding their homework).
I was a little worried that the competition they would have found thrilling in December would lose its charm come April, but each class seemed to intrinsically know which Hogwarts house they belonged to. Slytherin especially tackled their house’s traits with enthusiasm, even writing a Slytherin theme song to show their house pride.
Competition became fierce. Students highlighted all of their best attributes, ready to get points on the board. I mean, they literally announced when they’d done something good, eager to get recognition. Honestly, it was a lot more fun than the persuasive ennui of March madness. I rewarded their snivelling with points. I liked cracking a hole through the thick atmosphere of apathy.
On the penultimate day of class, I promised to let them know who won the House Cup and consequently, a party for the final day of class.
I spent hours making each class a slideshow, painstakingly documenting all the best moments from each period throughout the year. The final slide in each show revealed, ever so sneakily, that each class period had won.
I’m including it here but it’s pretty long, so basically, Mom, enjoy.
And then, biting back tears, I read my seniors this hastily written, poorly edited letter that I had written for them explaining the wisdom that I had cultivated all year long–the points don’t matter–live intrinsically! Toe a line, live a little, be kind to one another, and “Disturb the Universe”–an anthem that had become a refrain in my course after we read T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
Then I asked my students to “Reinforce” four things, and we went around in a circle individually reinforcing a book from the year, a concept that we learned in the class, an experience we had in the class, and a person from the class. Students were kind and the spirit of unity and generosity was palpable in each one of my classes. My students reminded me of experiences I’d stowed away on a high shelf–they dusted off the memories and replayed them in live color (Alekh reciting Braveheart for Sub for Santa! The Puppy Party! Making movies for the Shakespeare Project! Maria bringing balloons for the class gift! Interactive quizzes where everyone acted like hooligans!) They reinforced projects that had reached them–projects I’d been nervous to assign. They reinforced the books I’d come to consider life coaches. Perhaps most touchingly, they reinforced their peers, noticing the kindest and most important attributes of other individuals in my classroom. All the feels were felt. There was one multi-cliqued class hug. About 17 tears were shed by students. About 900 tears were shed by me. It was a day of kindness that I will never forget.
It was a powerful reminder that humanity is real and literature helps us access what is most real about ourselves. It unites us in a way that equations can’t. It reminds us that the feel anything at all is to experience a theme.
Thursday was the last day of class, and consequently, since all of the houses were winners, as I explained in the letter, each house got a party. Students were sweet all day, dropping off kind letters and their favorite books to share with me (so excited to get started reading). One of my dearest students wrote a feature piece in the Newspaper marking my departure, which I will of course include here because I can’t help myself.
The whole day was rich with goodbye and good luck and probably a little bit of good riddance, but there was palpable happiness co-mingling with unadulterated nostalgia.
But finally, amidst the 8th period (Hufflepuffs) panini making and yearbook signing, some of my Slytherins trampled in. And a few Ravenclaws. And a few Gryffindors. And before I knew it, a sizable smattering of my students are standing on their desks reciting “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman, and I am a veritable pool of tears.
It’s kind of a sad poem actually, and the context of the movie was a little different, but I think every English teacher secretly hopes they will be “O Captained” in some way or another.
Just when I was preparing myself mentally and emotionally to leave, they pull me back in, lift me back up, and remind me that we too can, through the beautiful power of words, disturb the universe.
And if you think I’m not going to forevermore refer to myself as Captain… well, let’s just hope my big head deflates eventually.