I’m sitting out in the long-expected sunshine, a stack of Honors American Literature exams on my lap. I’m reading them, marking them, but slowly.
I keep getting distracted. A senior is heading off to Scotland in the fall, and he perches on a bench long enough to talk about summer jobs in America and the psychology program he’ll start in September. His best friend walks by in a Seattle Sounders jersey, which I stare at just long enough to realize it’s out of place here.
I get distracted by the students who emerge from their math exams–some triumphant and others shaken–to sit in circles on the pavement, signing yearbooks with many-colored pens and waiting for their dorm vans to take them back for “last things” at their school-year homes. We laugh about the year, remembering classes that are already fading into legend. They peer over my shoulder and guess at the handwriting on the backs of the exams. I guess, too, and am right most of the time. I set the grading down, and don’t pick it up again for an hour or so. The time is precious, not wasted.
Meanwhile, halfway around the world, other students are waking up to go to their senior breakfast at Alki beach, across Elliot Bay from downtown Seattle, where they’ll take pictures in front of the familiar skyline. Later today, while I’m fast asleep, some two hundred Ingraham High School seniors will walk across the stage on the football field.
They’ll wear blue and white robes, and colorful shoes. The girls will have immaculate nails, the boys new haircuts. Their enormous families will shout and whistle with each name read aloud, one last time. They’ll toss their hats into a sky that, more likely than not, threatens rain. Their families will pour down from the bleachers with candy necklaces, balloons and flowers, eager to celebrate this formidable summit that’s an accomplishment as much for the community as the lone student in the center of pictures.
I’m here and I’m there. These are the last Ingraham students that I taught, three years ago. They were the sweet ninth graders, Sudanese and Mexican, Vietnamese and Filipino, who liked Owl City and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and who threw me a goodbye party on my last day at Ingraham. They’re the ones whose notes I read three years ago, lost and tired and starting at a new school in a new country. I’m in the right place, I know, sitting by the Kander River with these giggling, math-addled teenagers, hearing their stories and signing their yearbooks. I just wish I could be there, too.
Three years, and I’m becoming familiar with distance. We have Facebook, we tell each other. We’ll be in touch. (In touch. Such a bizarre term for correspondence, the opposite of touch.) It’s easier than it used to be, when a long-distance call was diamond-rare and those strings to Papua New Guinea on the missionary board meant that those kids in the rainforest might be several feet taller, for how often I saw them in person. Now Skype is free and sometimes works really well. Well enough that we can forget that the world is wide and we’re scattered across it. We’ll be in touch. We say it so often, we almost believe that nothing will change. We sometimes even forget to say goodbye.
I said goodbye to Ingraham, three years ago, but it isn’t gone. I’ll remember it forever. And these seniors I see every day, whose handwriting I know and whose laughter I can recognize from far away, they won’t completely leave Black Forest Academy when they graduate on Friday. Across time and distance, we love and remember.
And in these distances–from Ingraham, from our students who’ll leave in a few days, from Timmy in Air Force training for the summer–I’m learning what to do with love and memory. I had a teacher in Austria who used to tell us that thought and prayer should be so intertwined that every time a person came to mind, we’d pray for that person. Every time. I’m not there, yet, but I’ve found that when farewells leave holes of longing, they seem closer when I take that longing back to Christ, turning the ache into prayers for courage, peace and strength for my friends and students. I’m learning to trust God with those that I love, trusting that He loves them even more than I do, and will protect and comfort them when I’m far away.
I’m learning, also, to rejoice in all circumstances. Even in goodbyes, rejoice. Mourn, of course, but also praise. Because we’ve been fortunate, this community that God creates and recreates new every year. Because this tension–wanting to be here by the river and at Ingraham graduation–reminds me that I am rich in love. It’s all a gift, unexpected and unearned, but beautiful all the same. God has been good to me, to us. To Ingraham and Black Forest Academy, and the Classes of 2013, who I’ll keep praying for long after we’ve said our last goodbyes.
I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart…