Class of 2020, more specifically, my AP English Literature students,
I miss you. I’ve thought this a lot, and I wish I’d told you more often. Through all of this, not one of you has complained to me that your senior year is getting cut short. Instead, you’ve talked to me about practicing social distancing, and how you are happy and grateful that you and those you love are healthy. Being selfless is a powerful and admirable thing. Thank you for thinking of the world before you think about yourselves. I am so proud to be your teacher.
At the close of every April, I set aside time to reflect on my experience as an educator. I write a farewell note with some advice. What’s so special is that each year, the message shifts. Each year I write a new piece with my current students in mind. I normally read this to you in class: You’re huddled together around me, sometimes I hold back tears because I know there are some of you I will never see again.
This year we can’t have that moment.
It is easy to feel hopeless and sad and disappointed during this time. This is my ninth year teaching, and one of the most difficult things for me was watching you get overwhelmed. It seemed there was never a day where there wasn’t too much going on: a day with three scheduled tests, a night with not enough hours to complete all the homework, or a pandemic hitting right at the point in your senior year when things were supposed to be the most memorable and exciting.
But I want you to believe that despite all of the existential, maybe even nihilistic, thoughts you’ve been experiencing, life is still good.
When I first began graduate school, I hated my classes. I only applied because I didn’t know what else to do with my English major. I often wondered: What was I doing trying to become a teacher when I didn’t even want to be one?
But I didn’t quit — and I got placed at Princeton High School for my student teaching. My mentor was a risk-taker and gave himself entirely to his students. Sometimes he’d jump to the tops of his students’ desks and walk across them as he taught. He was passionate. And I couldn’t get enough of his love for teaching. When I took over his class and began my odyssey of teaching, I realized I was where I was always supposed to be: at the helm of the classroom.
In the beginning, I was so afraid of not knowing more than my students, or not being wise enough to teach them. After each school day, I would settle into my office to research and learn and plan. Sometimes until 6 o’clock, sometimes until 10 o’clock. I was devoted to learning my craft — but it was taxing. My most memorable moment was reading Darwin’s memoirs with my then-seniors and recognizing with them that “if [Darwin] had to live [his] life again [he] would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week” in order to prevent the atrophy of his imagination, his burnout.
I want you to know I’ve seen your burnout long before Gov. Phil Murphy announced he was closing schools. I’ve watched you walk with eyes empty through my classroom door because you barely slept the night before. Sometimes you’d fiddle with your pencils or take audible deep breaths when assignments were announced, but one thing became clear: You were overworked.
This is your chance.
The world is on pause, and it may be the only time this ever happens. Don’t sleep it all away. Go outside. Wake up at dawn and walk barefoot in the grass and feel the dew on the soles of your feet like a true transcendentalist would. Open a book. Feel no shame writing down beautifully constructed sentences because they make your pulse go or the hair stand on your arms. Play a record. Lie on your floor and revel in the lost art of really listening to music (and don’t forget to close your eyes when you do it).
But most importantly, don’t ever forget these things exist.
Don’t take them for granted. They are the medicine that can give our lives meaning and direction when we are feeling burnt out or overworked or hopeless. They can save us.
You have the whole world before you. And believe me, it will pick up again.
I am so proud of you. Remember, your journey may not always feel like it makes sense. You may not always know where you are going. Have faith in yourself. And always remember the words of W.B. Yeats: “The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.” Trust the journey you’re on.
You’re wiser than you think.
Lauren Fedorko is an adjunct professor, AP English Literature teacher, photographer, and poet who lives in Lambertville, N.J. email@example.com