Graduation day is the day when "This Is Where I Belong" by the Kinks becomes my theme song
Today was my high school's graduation, and by that I mean the school where I teach. It is the day of the year, above all the others, that confirms my decision to leave academia to become a teacher.
When I was a professor, attending graduation was a chore mandated by the university. (We had to go to one per year.) While I was always excited to cheer on favorite students who were graduating, the event was mostly a sterile reading of names. (I learned to go to the summer graduation, because it was shorter and because the keynote speech was given by a fellow prof, meaning it was better than the others we usually got.) The last graduation I went to at my university happened right after I had accepted my job offer at a high school in New York, but before I had informed the university and my chair. (I had to wait until Monday.) At this point I was so estranged from my surroundings that I drank two stiff bloody marys for breakfast and drove to the graduation blasting early Fall singles.
Flash forward to today, when I showed up an hour early to mingle with the students before the ceremony. During that time one student tearfully told me I was the best teacher she ever had, and would miss me. Another told me I was a role model for him going forward in life. I have a tremendous amount of respect for both of these students, and I almost just started breaking down and crying right there. Afterwards there were not just students but parents hugging me and wishing me well and testifying to how much they appreciated my work. Again, it was hard to keep it together. I finally broke when I got home and opened the card a student had given me expressing her gratitude. I don't want to get into the details, but it was so heartfelt and flattering that I am still shaken by it.
Until I became a teacher I never knew that I was capable of having such an effect on other people's lives. Sure, there were glimpses of this when I was a prof, but nothing approaching this level. I have never felt in my life such a sense of meaning and importance in my work. What happened today, and what I did to build those relationships is a million times more important and meaningful than any monograph I could write, any conference paper I could give, any research that I could do. The connections forged in the high school classroom are of an intensity higher than I imagined possible when I taught college students.
It is on this day when I feel that I do not deserve what I have. I went from being at a job where I was treated as an afterthought to one where my work is valued and recognized. I get a constant sense of appreciation from my students, their parents, my colleagues, and even my superiors. How did I get so lucky? This is why, when people ask me if I want to go back into academia, I just laugh and laugh and say nothing. This is why the old cycle of regret has melted away. This is why I am glad and proud, not sheepish or embarrassed, to call myself a teacher.