On This Year Without A Spring

A typical Seattle spring day, pouring rain at an abandoned lake, decorated with some threatening signs. (“Crowded parks lead to closed parks!”)

As far as unpopular opinions go, I’ve never been terribly shy about disliking spring. It’s nothing personal; it’s not even universal. I don’t like spring in Seattle, and it’s all about the weather. Dreary autumns and rainy winters feel appropriate, but when spring declares itself with still mostly rainy days that are maybe five degrees warmer than winter, I’m no longer amused. I’d like something else, please. (Of course this April, which I’ve spent almost entirely no more than 50 feet from my home, has been one of the driest, warmest Aprils on record. But that’s a post for another day.)

But while spring in general doesn’t impress me much, I have a soft spot for spring at school. While the natural world is just waking up, new life uncurling itself from the ground with agonizing slowness, spring in school is more like harvest time, in the best sense. Those final, hectic months are full to the brim with activity, final performances and long-practiced rituals marking the successful passage of another year and, for some, the end of an entire chapter of education. Teachers and students who have honed skills like sentence structure, parabolic equations and civilized conversation see those building blocks in action.

When I was an English teacher, spring classes were a lesson in paradox, both busy and mellow, as we packed all the learning and life we could in those final weeks together. The work was more complicated than ever, the tests more comprehensive, but most of the time we had also created together a safe place for hard work and complex conversation. Classes felt comfortable, broken in like a pair of shoes. Though I was usually pleased leave the shoes behind for a barefoot summer, I knew that September’s shoes wouldn’t be as nice as these, at least not for a while.

It’s a strange spring for school. Schools closed in Seattle on March 11, at first for about six weeks and then, on April 6, for the rest of the term. We are not alone, with about 90% of students no longer learning in a school building as of the beginning of April. Learning is still happening, and to widely varying extents school is, too. Though the quality of quantity of distance learning depends on the stability and often the income of the homes in which it needs to happen, teachers and students are working hard worldwide to finish the year online.

The strange consequence of being a few years removed from teaching is that, at first, I tried to identify with the parents in all of this educational upheaval. I am, after all, a parent, not a teacher now. But while I can understand the mounting frustration with unexpected or haphazard homeschooling and lack of childcare while working full-time, that’s not my life right now. Right now, I see empty schools and mourn with teachers and students, missing the sweetest part of the year.

No baseball or track. No prom. No graduations. For twelfth graders, this means a ragged end to mandatory education. Some will go to college in the fall, bonding with new friends over the oddity that was their last spring of high school. About a third, though, won’t be going back at all. They’ve already sat in their last classroom, and likely didn’t think to say goodbye. For many of those, missing out on the formal finishing line, their commencement ceremony, is especially heartbreaking.

Ballard High Graduation, 2002

Driving by my own shuttered high school a few weeks ago, I remembered a spring day there. I had to drive across the city in the morning with some chemistry classmates to take my last Advanced Placement test, and afterward we felt clever and free, our final major assessment finished. Later that day I registered for my college classes, choosing on a whim to take Latin instead of Russian. (Because when you’re choosing between those kinds of solid practicalities, who can say which is more useful?) The evening, at our final concert, we played Tchaikovsky’s “Capriccio Italien,” and the last notes lingered in the air, a moment I in which I would have remained for a bit if I could. But I couldn’t, because I left the concert with my friends, heading back downtown to see Star Wars: Episode II, which had opened that day.

And even though I took a test in a subject I’ve mostly forgotten now, even though I seldom play viola anymore and it turned out to be the worst Star Wars movie, it was still my favorite day of high school. It was a glorious spring day, and I spent it in the city with friends. It was my own Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, if Ferris had instead done precisely what he was supposed to be doing and enjoyed it supremely. The city, the friends, the test, the orchestra—all pieces of belonging that chased me down one fine May day. I would have been sorry to miss graduation and prom, both ceremonies that were lovely and a little silly, as I’d expected them to be.

That’s where my mind goes this spring. I’m as removed from school as ever, but my heart is still there often, grieving those endings with those who are missing them. I think of the student teachers who worked so hard to build rapport with their classes, planning units far in advance that they never got to teach. I think of the teachers who were retiring, spending their final months as teachers on laptops around the country. I think of the plays unperformed, the lines memorized and never delivered, the roles finally earned and never played. I think of races not run, games not played. Yearbooks unsigned. Goodbyes, for the most part, unsaid. Endings matter, and this isn’t the ending any of us expected or wanted.

I don’t have students of my own to write to today. Indeed, there are only a handful of my former students who are still in school at all. But many are still in school somewhere, and all of us have known unfinished seasons these last few weeks and months. For all of you—students I know and those I don’t, teachers everywhere—I mourn your endings with you, the loss of what you’d hoped for this spring.

I can’t pretend to know what you’ve given up these last few months, or the even greater losses ahead. I can only thank you, though it wasn’t your choice, and encourage you, knowing that these are lonely days. I’m out of the advice-giving practice, at least for people older than four, so all I have by way of encouragement now is a glimpse ahead: Some endings aren’t as final as they seem. The characters from my favorite high school day didn’t disappear after commencement, as I feared at the time they would. There were bonfires and movie nights, visits to dorms and trips to see Harry Potter. It took intentionality, yes, but most things worth having do, I find. Even now I go to the zoo with a fellow orchestra member and her kids. A chemistry classmate came to visit me in Germany. The president of National Honor Society and I still walk around Greenlake and talk about theology and PBS Masterpiece specials. The classes ended, the year ended, high school ended, but the some of the most important parts turned out to be more permanent than school.

My hope for you this spring, wherever you find yourself in the midst of these strange days, is that in the midst of all the endings you’ve missed, someday you’ll find the beauty of continuing. Whether it’s a friend you see again, a teacher you finally say goodbye to, or a wonderful day when you can explore the place you’ve come to know best. For now, know that I’m thinking about you, grieving with you, and looking forward to the day you’re all together again.

One Comment Add yours

  1. Bittersweet, isn’t it? What a kind, encouraging, thoughtful blog!
    How ironic that this quarantined spring has been one of the prettiest in a while! 🙄😬
    Laura

    Sent from Outlook Mobile

    ________________________________

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