Last Day Letter: Our Better Country

Ever since the student-teaching days, I’ve ended school with a letter. It’s something I remember loving in high school—the one time a teacher did it—these final written words that summed up a year. Now, I write as much for myself as for them, this summing-up providing my own version of closure. I started posting them here when I moved to Germany, so it seems only fitting to include this year’s version.

My dear students,

Today is the last day of Honors American Literature. The “last day” is a bit of an anticlimax at BFA, I know. You have tests to take, yearbooks to sign, bags to pack, and friends and places to bid farewell before you walk away with that blissful, slow-motion, end-of-a-90s-high-school-movie feeling of freedom that the onset of summer entails. But still, this is the last day that we’ll spend together without the ominous presence of Scantron sheets, so it seems significant.

While the ending of a year together is always momentous, today is especially important to me, as this will be the last class I teach for a while, and you my last students. No pressure, but this means you will be the students I remember for a while, your laughter and questions the ones that echo far longer than a typical class, whose presence is painted over each fall by a new batch of eleventh graders. And while this hiatus from teaching has nothing to do with you, I have to say that I couldn’t have chosen a better group to remember best. I’ve loved being your teacher, filling two periods a day with good books, better questions, and some of the best stories—yours—that I’ve heard in a while. You are unique and brave, clever and kind, on the road to senior-year excellence. I’m confident that news from here next year will tell of your daring adventures and wise leadership. That is who you are, students, and I’m proud to know you.

We’ve spent a great deal of time and energy this year deciphering the classics of America, a nation to which many of us claim connection. These books, plays, poems and essays tell a story of a hopeful and sometimes heartbreaking place. As I prepare for my own homecoming to American shores in just a few weeks, I think more about America and its dreams, imagining a farm full of rabbits but knowing I’ll be content with my house on Mango Street. We can’t all have Gatsby’s mansion, after all, and in any case we know that the wandering Huckleberry Finn was happier on his raft than Tom and Daisy Buchanan would have been in a palace.

Thinking about our disappointed protagonists, I’m reminded of the letter to the Hebrews, in which a long list of faithful saints face disappointment, but in any case “are seeking a country of their own” (Hebrews 11:14). They could have returned to the places of their birth, could have settled for those small dreams, the letter continues, but instead they “they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (v. 16).

A better country, that’s what we’re longing for. I hope this year of reading about America has helped you to understand it better, at least to know where we’re coming from, and where many of us are headed eventually. I hope it’s helped you to love it a little, or to imagine it as a home someday. In a larger sense, though, I end this year grateful that the America of our sad books isn’t the best country we have available to us. The American Dream, in all its shiny elusiveness, isn’t the best dream. While our fictional heroes end their stories with sorrow, no wandering is too far, no disappointment too great, to separate us from the deep contentment of a life in Christ. We dream better dreams of a better country, a place we share with him.

Dear students, you have filled this year with joy, and I pray that wherever God takes you next—for the summer and beyond—you keep reading, writing, and dreaming. I’m proud of you, and I’ll miss you very much.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi Dahlstrom

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