I have nothing to do. It’s the end of the school year and I’m simply waiting the clock out. Instead of my normal morning routines of getting my room ready for the day and checking my lesson plan for any last minute improvements, I’m sitting down and staring at the barren walls of my classroom. What now? The ending of each school year brings with it a fair amount of free-floating anxiety and restlessness. This post is an attempt to work through some of my thoughts concerning the enervating insanity that is the last week of school. What happens when exams are over and the machinery of school grinds to a halt?
As the school year winds down I find myself struggling to let go. It’s as if I need a crowbar to pry myself from the walls of my classroom. My entire being seems frozen in a rictus grasp; muscle and sinew grown brittle from a year of perpetual isotonic contraction. I’ve spent 180+ days watching over every single thing that happens inside room 266. My apparatus of attention has been merciless in its focus. Like any teacher, I’ve expended massive quantities of energy building classroom systems and maintaining the complex artifice required to help students navigate the artificiality of most public school environments: hallway passes, hierarchies, submission to authority, transactional relationships built on grades, group work with people you might not like, etc. This is the discursive machinery of school.
Before I continue I want to make sure that my intentions are clear. I use the term ‘machinery’ not to make a comment against the supposed factory-like nature of school. Others with considerable more intelligence have thoroughly debunked the factory model of education argument. In many ways the rhythm of the school day echoes the rhythm of “adult life.” Scaling any institution to a national level requires multiple layers of standardization and rationality.
The teaching profession is chock full of roles and responsibilities. Class routines, homework, grades, exams, presentations, and high-stakes tests are all discursive practices in the Foucauldian sense. The relationships I create with students are inextricably bound up in the discourse of education. It’s also worth mentioning that discourse and power don’t function in overly deterministic ways. I’m not simply a cog in a faceless machine controlling children through the employment of rules and systems. Power never flows in only one direction.
The end of the year is in many ways similar to the beginning. September can be a relatively exciting time for most students and teachers. The energy in the building in those first few days is infectious; even the most jaded of adolescents can often find a reason to smile during the beginning of September. Even if a student isn’t particularly inclined towards the academic side of school, the prospect of seeing one’s friends again, checking out previous crushes, and etc. can be fun. At this early point in the school year the discursive machinery of school is chomping at the bit – ready to inculcate.
By mid June the facile social contract between student, teacher, and school breaks down. Final exams have occurred, high stakes tests have been given, and gradebooks have been closed. The normal reasons I ask kids to do things no longer hold water. I come face to face with the incredibly dynamism that is a human child. To be in a school on the last week of school is to bask in the sublime vitality of adolescent humanity. The energy is palpable. You don’t contain it; you do your best to direct it in ways that cause the least amount of property damage and hurt feelings.
Interacting with students outside the discourse of education often reveals entire identities previously hidden away. Students who might normally be reserved in my class all of a suddenly crackle with charisma. The last few days of the year also have a way of humbling me. My early years in the profession quickly disabused me of the notion that I was “saving” children. That doesn’t stop me from assuming that English Language Arts with Mr. Anderson is the most important and transformative experience for each student. So imagine my surprise when children’s eyes glaze over me on the way to getting their yearbooks signed and etc. It’s glorious. There’s comfort in the knowledge that my class is not the center of each student’s life.
The kids aren’t the only ones bereft of direction during the last week of school. I guess I don’t know how to interact with children when they’re not being students, and that’s what makes the end of the year so difficult for me. I’ll miss them, of course. But without the discursive machinery of school to fall back on I choke. What’s left when teacher and student have extricated themselves from the rhythms of contemporary school life? My struggles with this issue extend beyond my students. I also fumble my words when speaking to colleagues at this time of year. What’s left to say?
So in these final days I’ll wander the hallways as a ghost, an apparition waiting to be called back into existence.