Today I taught my last classes for Penn State. I say “taught” but really these final sessions were less about curriculum and more about celebration and reflection, as last classes always are for me. We gathered at a coffee house today. They handed me their papers and handed each other their Gifts of Words–little pieces of paper on which they had scrawled poems and song lyrics and compliments and counsel for each other. I fed them some saltine toffee. Little mementos from English class. Some of them have become friends here. It all felt good and also sad and wholly surreal.
I’ve taught at Penn State for 14 years. That’s 28 semesters. After those hard numbers, things get a little fuzzy. Some semesters I taught one class, some three classes. Some classes had 25 students, some had 5. But if I were to make an estimated guess, I’ve probably taught upwards of 1300 students. Wow.
There was a time, a long time ago, when I could claim to remember each one of them by face if not name. That is no longer true. How could it be? No, while several handfuls of them still remain clear and present and as tangible as they were when they sat in rows in front of me, most of their names and faces blur together now.
Still, I find myself thinking back over my rosters, recalling them individually and en masse, and now I want to say thank you:
—to my first students, the ones I taught when I was still a student myself: you were completely terrifying because I was sure you could see right through green, know-nothing me.
—to my last students, the ones who just devoured the saltine toffee and played us the didgeridoo: thank you for being cheerful and patient with your super-flaky, easily-distracted teacher, and for making my final semester at Penn State so pleasant and memorable. Yinz (trying out my Pittsburghese!) rock!
—to the students who came to office hours to talk about your assignments and the ones who came just because you wanted to talk: I needed that conversation just as much as you did.
—to the freshman boys who broke down because you missed your mothers: I was happy to listen and hug you hard.
—to the girls who told me your boyfriends made you feel small: you are NOT small; you are sky-scraper and monument and continent and mountain and I hope I showed you some kind of strength.
—to the ones who brought me bars and bars of (dark only, please!) chocolate: you have earned infinite extra credit in my heart.
–-to the ones who came out to me in person and on page, who shared your most private, most essential selves: I am still and always honored by your confidence.
—to the ones who were SO much smarter than your teacher, who were steeped in Comp Lit or Anthropology or Foreign Policy or Physics: you absolutely thrilled me. You have my always-awe.
—to the Business Writing boys who pampered me in my first pregnancy, buying baby gifts and offering your own names (and also “Beowulf”!?) when it was time to choose a name for our son: you made me reconsider so many of my assumptions. You were a pure delight!
—to the student who took over my class when I was clearly ill, saying, “I got this Ms. S., you just sit down and rest:” you saved the day and taught the hell out of that chapter!
—and to the one, who, years after graduation, and after hearing about one of my publications, phoned my department head to ask about me, saying, “I heard Ms. Squillante blew up,” which sent said head, who did not recognize this as a colloquialism, into a frantic, terrified tizzy: I am still laughing!
—to the ones who rose like cream to the top with your excellent papers and ambitious attempts, and also to you who failed spectacularly but stayed in it, tried to mine it for something of use: I have equal faith in your success.
—to the ones in the vast academic middle: you taught me resilience, efficiency, continuance. You got just what you needed and got out. There is something useful and elegant in that.
–-to the grad students I had the privilege of facilitating during a semester in which two beloved family members died: you taught me more–about writing and teaching, about writing about teaching, about compassion and empathy and care–than I can say.
—to the returning adults who found themselves surrounded by teenagers: your wisdom and experience soothed our nerves and calmed our minds during national tragedy, broadened our poetry discussions on Tuesday nights, increased our empathy and sense of the larger context in every class class you took with us. I call you co-teachers and real friends.
—to the truly terrible ones, the three or four of you who made me wish I was a chain smoker, who threw epithets and desks at me, who wrote snuff pornography and claimed you didn’t realize it: you taught me how to teach to conflict. You made me re-direct anger and rise to the occasion.
—to the ones who found me on Facebook, who “like” my writing posts and my feminist rants, who follow my blog and send cards and emails from your lives far beyond me: your attention and affirmation feels good and it is never a bother–on the contrary, it’s a joy!–to hear from you. I really meant it when I said “stay in touch!”
—to the ones who grew up and got: PhDs, incredible jobs, wonderful partnerships and babies, babies, babies: I’m not your mother (though now I am old enough to be), but damn do I feel proud!
—to the ones who bounced my own babies when they were hysterical or sleepy, who bought them ice cream, bathed them, played paper dolls and taught them chess: you are family.
The truth is, my darlings, whether or not I can remember your name or your face, or the year or the section or the class, or the memoir or the memo or the poem you wrote for me, if you were ever my student, you are part of me.
My life at Penn State, my teacherly self, my very on-my-sleeve heart.
Thank you. Thank you.