Senioritis, Tampa Bay, & Unity

Yesterday morning at 8:20 a.m. when the morning bell rang at my high school, I’d venture that attendance was at an all time low for our graduating class.  Usually, a spring break recharges me, but as we embark upon the last quarter of the year at Kecoughtan, I find myself fighting something akin to senioritis. Just three months until the freshman I shuffled through Journalism I four years ago walk the stage to get those long-awaited diplomas.  There won’t be one for me, but nevertheless, I’m graduating, too.

For ten years I’ve drilled grammatical concepts and come up with clever mnemonic devices for mastering confusing concepts.  I’ve written English curriculum geared at engaging our digital natives in the discipline of analyzing life and sharing their informed perspectives with a world that only requires an internet connection to be published.  I’ve graded over 16,000 persuasive essays, hoping the evaluation reveals my kids have conquered organizational structure, transitions between and across well-developed paragraphs supporting and explaining valid reasons for established positions.  I’ve shepherded thousands of students through poetry explorations and career discovery adventure projects.

I’ve been in high school for nearly my entire adult life.  Tenth grade English is what I know, but does the niche I’ve carved out for myself unintentionally apply to life outside a school building?

After writing last Tuesday night, I couldn’t sleep.  There was no school, no impending pressures.  I packed up the car, and at 2 a.m. started out on a southbound highway.  By early afternoon Wednesday, I was soaking up the Florida heat as I checked into a little hotel room in Tampa Bay.  With Charming’s new job in Germany official, I was finally able to write about the questions and uncertainties I’ve been grappling with for some months now.  It was almost as though coming out in my blog about moving to Stuttgart for three years was a means of typing the removal of a mental boulder that, once eliminated, opened the floodgates of everything else I hadn’t been able to face until I’d written the first truth.

We’re getting married in July and moving to Germany.  This isn’t just my last quarter at Kecoughtan.  It’s the last few months of my single, adult life in America.  And if I am being completely honest, I haven’t liked the person I see looking back in the mirror for a while now.  This little impromptu excursion to the sun was an invitation for God to warm the coldest and most broken parts of me.  Unlike the patio heater that whirs beside me, Tampa’s breeze was subtle and silent, the heat of the day permeating the pavement until well past dark.  The feigning summer days comforted me as I faced all the other truths that come after deciding to move to Germany.

Who will I be after Charming and I get married?  I can teach on base or facilitate online classes, sure.  But do I want to?  I drove for hours.  I thought for hours, too.  Maybe I could get an internship at a German car manufacture and pick up some practical, enterprising skills to keep me relevant and fresh.  God only knew I would end up having enough car problems to turn a half a day’s drive into a two day trek back to Virginia after my soul searching was over and I would wish for that particular skill set.

On Wednesday night when Charming, unable to hide his surprise, asked me why I’d chosen Tampa Bay, I was almost embarrassed to admit it to him.  Because I know I’m going to be his wife in a few months.  We will live together, take meals together, do life together.  I’ll manage our home, and hopefully he’ll manage our finances (shameless plea, noted I’m sure).  We’ll try to expand our family.  There won’t be time for frivolous things in Germany, I imagine.

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Pokémon Go is just a game to some, but once Niantic rebranded the in-game battling system with raid bosses suggesting groups of ten or more, they forced individual players to organize into communities. When I admitted to my students this week that I’d gone to Tampa Bay because it was the one place in the United States where I could catch the regional Pokémon that spawn in Africa and South America, one joked that he didn’t know people still played the game.  I laughed silently because I could still picture realizing that the boy in the back row of my last class on the first day of school in August had been a raid battling buddy all summer long.

Honestly, I see the father and brother of a girl I took to Italy more frequently than my family simply because we share the same passion and are always trying to sneak in some common time to take down those big raid bosses.  We can’t do it alone.  If we want to be successful, we need numbers.  When we come together, I’m one of many, like the thirteen original colonies strengthened by forming one republic.  Who knew Niantic would support our year’s ploys for unity, too?

There probably won’t be time for Pokémon Go in Germany.  And I probably won’t teach tenth grade English in Germany either.  Well, at least not for a year.  I don’t know who I’ll be when I’m Charming’s wife.  I don’t know what our house in Stuttgart will feel like on Tuesday nights when I sit down to write.

I do know that with when this mid-distance relationship with Charming got serious, I started living for the weekends and began pulling away, a little at a time.  It wasn’t conscious, but the logical conclusion is that it would be easier to sever ties if they weren’t closely bonded.  After Charming proposed and I knew this would be my last year in Hampton, joining him in the D.C. area was a natural next step.  Now that we’re moving a half a world away, there are immediate choices: what needs to be moved? Shipped?  Stored?  Sold?  Purchased overseas?  This is what I thought about while I nestled myself into a deserted patch of beach between two lured Poké Stops and caught my first Corsola.

It means little to most of my readers, I’m sure, but the people who have kept me company through the long winter weeks of what feels like the longest year of my life will think it’s very cool.  I never imagined bumping into strangers in Fort Monroe who turned me on to a group chat in the summertime would lead me to find soulmates in Hampton locals who’d been driving the same streets, hitting up Marker 20 for drinks and a live band, all previously passing like ships in the night until a shared passion for an augmented reality game made loners into unlikely friends.

This morning, we held our third quarter award ceremony in my yearbook class.  Having successfully submitted all pages for this volume of the Tomahawk, some of our staffers deserved recognition.  There are a handful of girls who I’ve coached from freshman year through senior year on the Tomahawk staff who have always carried us.  We didn’t meet our final deadline on time, and these girls were honest in their quarterly reflections that they were experiencing senioritis.  In competition with prom dress shopping, yearbook wasn’t the priority it had been for them in years prior.  Today, as a part of our ceremony, we reflected on that reality and gave recognition to younger staffers who are still investing in their legacy in the green and white halls of KHS.

That’s it, I think.  Senioritis isn’t a slap in the face of integrity or work ethic.  I showed up ready to work yesterday, but each natural occurrence was suddenly a bittersweet potential “last time” I’ll do something.  For four years, I’ve lived more waking hours on the CD hall than in my own home.  My shins boast half a dozen scars from all the times I ran into the stage while I was teaching, swallowed the pain, and kept flow with the lesson anyway.  That’s what we do.  As teachers, we respond to the environment.  It’s never canned.  It’s never predictable.  There are always approximately twenty-six variables breathing new life into each analysis of Pat Mora’s “Same Song”, a poem that captures the adolescent struggle, a uniform battle common to the human experience of being disappointed by the reflection we see looking back at us in the mirror.  I can relate, too.

In reality, I’ve lost myself so fully in tenth grade English that I’m unsure what practical abilities I have.  I’m not a singer or a songwriter anymore, and perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise to shed some of the hats I wore to sift through the plight of the Jack of All Trades, Master of None life to which I have become so accustomed after over a decade in public education.  My acting skills are largely to credit for the fact that my average students performed as well on standardized testing last month as the district honors level student average.  If one deems me a better teacher, it’s only because I exhaust myself in pursuing creative new ways, on a daily basis, of selling my kids grammar and rhetoric just like an ad on TV.

If my students believe that their lives will be better, they will buy what I’m selling.  This morning, when my yearbook students and I got honest about this sneaking current of senioritis threatening to destroy our perfect submission record, we wound up engaging instead in a discussion of value.  For me, senioritis isn’t making me lazy.  It’s making me want all of these “lasts” to mean something.  This award ceremony, for example, we got deep.  We honored our traditional recipients, and then we took a few moments to get serious and think about the unexpected ways in which our yearbook theme can change the world.

The theme of 2018 Tomahawk is unity, that we are one of many, each of us contributing to the greater good, together separate and solitary, however paradoxical.  We’ve followed the thread of unity throughout our school year, documenting it in action and featuring our own people to highlight the celebrated diversity.  One of the interview questions we’d explored in the closing divider of the annual was what individual students were going to do to carry on the torch of unity next year at Kecoughtan, but given my recent soul searching adventure in Tampa Bay, I needed to take my kids deeper.

More than half of this class isn’t coming back to Kecoughtan.  They are graduating or, like me, moving away.  How does this theme we’ve tried to hit home for the student body apply after we leave?  Students struggled at first, but as I called them out one at a time, asking where they were headed next and then isolated the question, “What will you do to promote unity at Virginia Tech?” If our theme wasn’t just some fancily crafted words, how does it impact future life actions?

As I listened to seniors I’d coached for years offer statements about acceptance and diversity, about tolerance and time, about morale and equality… I felt the warmth of the Tampa Bay breeze return.  The kids said I was in a particularly good mood today, but the truth is they brought me back to the comfort of the ocean because our journey doesn’t end with the senioritis in June.  We’ve wrought real-world fights in our four years running the Tomahawk Press, dubbing ourselves the Memory Keepers.  Someone else will take that torch next year, but in our four years learning to be one of many, we found a community in KHS.

We unite in shared passions.  It’s happened in my English classes like with my yearbook kids.  And I was fortunate enough to stumble into a fabulous crew of raid buddies and make friends that are happy to keep me company while I play the game a few more months and bring my single adult life to a celebratory close… with a few rare Pokémon as keepsakes from Tampa, of course.

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