For teachers, the last day of school is about both endings and beginnings. It's a celebration and a sniffle of what we're leaving behind. It's more than just hurry up, get inside, close the door, sign yearbooks and you're off.
For me, the end of the school year is always bittersweet. Even after 25 years of teaching middle school, I still have yet to leave the last day dry-eyed.
My classroom starts to feel like my home away from home, I guess.
Some years it's worse than others. I've had years where the tears flowed from before the first bell even rang, until long after the kids (or most of them) left for their summer vacation.
This year was both usual and unusual.
This year the tears started at home, in my bathroom, when my friend Estherlyn texted me this photo of our boys at the end of 6th grade.
They were full of excitement, ready to tackle the adventure of "junior high" for the next three years.
And now, three years later, my tears came as I thought of all the happiness, disappointment, joy, laughter and growth they've experienced. I thought of the classes and report cards and homework, the basketball games, the sleepovers and dances and the lunches in my room. I thought about how they've managed to stay close, and how much I would miss their faces next September.
And I thought of how they've grown in to young men and are so ready for 10th grade.
Not a great way to start a frantic day of goodbyes and thank yous.
I made it through most of my classes-they moved too fast to allow myself to sink into sadness. We had papers to collect, "The Diary of Anne Frank" to finish watching (yes, I do end the year with the Holocaust-but remember, Anne says, "No matter what, I still believe people are good at heart." It's uplifting, really).
I made it through the start of each class, thanking them for this community and for doing their best. I reminded my "kids" of how hard they've worked, how their struggles have turned them into strong thinkers and readers and writers, and assured them that they were well prepared and ready for high school.
I think they believed me. I meant every word I said.
Except they don't know the real reason I show a sad movie on the last day is another teacher trick for hiding my tears.
I received some beautiful notes and thank yous, some cookies and gift cards and hugs. I could feel the tears right there, but I was holding it together. Bell rings, we talk, we watch, bell rings, they go. It's like a well oiled machine.
And then the last period of the day was upon me, my struggling readers who I've encouraged and cheered and danced with (can you do the nae-nae? I can!) and read with and tried to help them get to grade level. These kids hold such a special place in my heart. The tears are close... but in this class, we must celebrate! Cue Selena and dance!
And then suddenly the 9th graders started streaming in from the room across the hall. Kids I'd known since kindergarten, when their hair was neatly combed and backpacks proudly balanced on their shoulders. Kids that had spent the last three years eating lunch in my room, loving having a place to call 'home'.
They handed me a thank you card, and I made the mistake of opening it in front of them. You see, when teachers don't open gifts in front of their students there's a reason -- it makes them cry. And it's usually an ugly cry, and the kids usually don't know what to do.
Cue ugly cry.
The card said 'thanks for always letting us stay in your room (or at your house)' and 'you're like a second mom to me' and 'without you our lunches wouldn't have been nowhere near as great as they were'.
I honestly had no idea it meant so much to them.
And somewhere in there the last bell rang, we watched them stream out into summer and I closed the door on the last day of school. The quiet was eerie. The room was a mess. I breathed deeply.
And the door burst open.
A line of 11 gangly, sweaty, smiling 9th graders entered one by one, big arms wrapping around me. The tears streamed all over again with loose abandon. There was no card or cookies, just huge, grateful smiles covering up a bit of nervousness, as one by one they piled in and said thanks, my son at the end of the line.
"Thanks for having such great friends, Cam," I whispered as he hugged me, his head towering over mine.
The next thing I knew it was lollipops and selfies and sharing moments from the last three years.
They didn't leave. I didn't want them to leave. None of us quite knew what to do. I wondered if they knew how much they mean to me -- how much joy they brought when they were tiny little 7th graders watching the big kids with wonder in their eyes. Do they know the joy I felt when Cam was away at boarding school in 8th grade, and they still came to my room every day? I wonder if they felt the gratitude I had each lunchtime when they would flop their big 9th grade bodies on my beanbags, pull out their food and homework and Tech Decks and just be themselves?
And suddenly, the hugs started again. The tears, the smiles, the joy oozing up from inside.
The last day of school isn't only the final day of classes -- it's the final day of this community, this place of being together. This home away from home.
This is why I teach. This is why I'll be back again next year.
This is why they call me mamawolfe.
This essay originally appeared on Jennifer's blog, mamawolfe.