James Penha
First to Last

I recently replied to a tweet from someone I follow but otherwise don’t know except that we like each other’s politics. I had no idea he was a teacher until I read: ‘First day of school tomorrow. 3rd year teaching. I’m still nervous.’
      Oh, do I know what he means! I had forty-five first days over the course of my career. I was anxious on every one … and during the 1600 restless Sunday nights before Monday mornings … and on many other days among the 72,000 for which I prepared lessons so meticulously that I could belt them out like a Sinatra doing ‘I’ve Got You Under My Skin’ at Carnegie with syncopation, improvisation, and a particular spin rolled out for each and all of the students in front of me.
      ‘It means,’ I tweeted back, ‘we care.’
      But caring for the education and emotions and expectations of young people is exhausting—like parenting in some ways, but not in others. Although students regularly left the nest of my classroom, new hatchlings, their mouths and (I always hoped) minds open, appeared every new academic year. Despite the exhaustion and the anxiety, I loved the process because I learned as well—more from my mistakes than from my successes—to become a wiser and increasingly effective teacher with every brood.
      And my students, each successive year more junior than I, kept me young long after my youth was gone.
      By the time I reached my sixtieth birthday, I experienced neither ennui nor burnout, but an aching, physical weariness disabusing me of the dream that I would one day drop dead in the middle of a lively discussion of ‘Do Not Go Gentle.’ I had to admit that I was growing too old and too tired to teach until I died. Nonetheless, I struggled to continue, postponing retirement for another seven years.
      But my last day did finally come. The department party and the paeans by administrators at the final faculty meeting had taken place. On my last day, I discussed semester exam results in classes and delivered report cards to members of my homeroom. Their goodbyes and godspeeds were sincere, but they only knew me for a year or so and had a summer vacation to get to. I soon found myself alone in my—no, not my any longer—the classroom. The cleaners arrived with brooms and mops and emptied the last of my refuse from the trashcan to a big black plastic bag. I made my way out the door, down the stairs, on the path through the quadrangle to the street, and I felt a perturbation more disquieting than any anxiety I had ever known on a first day of school.     AQ