To my dear students,
Today, everything felt surreal as I waited, at a distance from you, with a few of your other teachers, in our downtown schoolyard.
You showed up, according to the strict schedule that was set, to empty your lockers of all the belongings that have been sitting there since the middle of March, when classes were cancelled for the remainder of the academic year.
For all 27 of you in our graduating class, this will be the last time you’re allowed back into this building as students of our school.
My heart is so sad for you. This was supposed to be the biggest year for you. Many of you have been classmates since kindergarten. But you didn’t get your last spring months together:
There was no selling prom tickets at lunch.
No presenting your end-of-year theatrical production.
No skipped periods, when the Montreal weather finally got warm, to sprawl on the urban greens on the nearby grounds of the McGill campus.
Because of this pandemic, you got none of those final-year traditions you’d anticipated growing up, traditions shared by all those generations of graduating classes who came before you.
“I headed back to the subway, alone, my heart heavy and my runny nose hidden by my mask.”
Today, on our last day together, we all respected social distancing and disinfecting protocols, so you could go into the building, one by one. Once inside, at your lockers in the empty hallways, you picked up water bottles and gym shoes; you tossed uncompleted homework assignments; and you emptied out funky lunch bag contents. Then as each of you headed back towards the front doors alone, a few teachers and administrators serenaded you, on your way out into the world, with a traditional school song.
My colleagues stationed inside told me later that they cried and smiled through the singing, and all of you did too. It felt so good for all of us to be together again with all of you, albeit with these physical gaps between us that felt so unnatural.
After each of you had your picture taken, individually, in the school foyer, it was time for you to walk out the front door, one last time as a student of our downtown school of the arts, where we feel more like family than teachers and students after 12 years of working so hard together on concerts, plays, creative school events and, of course, our daily classes.
I remember standing and waiting to greet you again in the schoolyard, thinking how quickly things were moving on this strange day of goodbyes and how much I would like to see you smiling instead of weeping. The door finally opened and one of you came out, Abby, carrying all her school mementos in a black garbage bag.
Abby was clutching a picture of herself and some classmates from one of our past concerts. Volunteers, who had wanted to make this a little more special had pasted different pictures on each of your lockers. Those images told stories of times when you hugged each other without thinking, of when you were shoulder to shoulder in your classrooms and line-ups, and when your delighted shrieks filled the hallways. They spoke of normalcy and reminded me of a time when we could never have imagined a last day of school like this.
“What counts most, when you strip the rest away, is being there for each other.”
Abby’s eyes were red, and she was surprised to see us all out in the school yard. We cheered. I could only share brief watery eye-contact with Abby, before ten seconds later, another student emerged via the front door. We cheered again, as we would for each and every one of you, as you exited the building alone, your black bags in hand.
I’ll never forget how consumed you all were with just seeing each other again in the schoolyard. I saw pale and forlorn faces start beaming. I heard the most beautiful laughing. I saw 17-year-old teenagers riding their bikes around the large yard as if you were the happiest of 10-year-olds. In this brief moment, you were almost yourselves again. We promised you that as soon as possible, we would safely gather and honour you as you deserve. It needed to be more than this, even though what we shared that day was a brief moment of magic amid months of shock, fear and navigating the unknown.
After half an hour, you slowly trickled out of the schoolyard to return to your homes. The downtown buildings blocked out the sun, and once again, the courtyard was empty. I headed back to the subway, alone, my heart heavy and my runny nose hidden by my mask.
2020 took us all by surprise, and you more than anyone, our graduating students, will remember your pivotal last year of school in a whole other way from the grads that came before you.
I am sad for you, but from that brief glimpse of joy I saw in the schoolyard today, as you reunited, I know you’ve learned the most important thing that will carry you through even the hardest times: What counts most, when you strip the rest away, is being there for each other.
Class of 2020: draw on your bonds through the next chapters of your lives. This will pass and you will be stronger for making it through this weird year, when nothing turned out as expected. Life sometimes does that. And please know that although I am no longer your teacher, you will always hold an extra-special place in my heart.
Your French as a Second Language Teacher
Watch the FACE Chamber Orchestra’s moving virtual end-of-year performance: