The first day of the rest of my life
On Friday, October 2, 2020, due to the pandemic, I taught from my living room–what will probably be–my last high school English class ever.
18 years of novels and poems and essays. Of lecturing on characterization, and themes, and arguing why your 5th grade English teacher was probably wrong. Of standing in front of a classroom full of teenagers pretending I was comfortable being called a “teacher.”
To me–being a teacher was a job of last resort. If I couldn’t make it as a journalist or a writer or a professional soccer player or a comedian or a rodeo clown I would become an English teacher. I mean, how hard could teaching be? Most teachers I had in school either didn’t care or made it look like they didn’t care. Either way– I wouldn’t have to work nights or weekends or summers. Teaching would, somehow, hand me the rare gift of infinite time. So at 22, with time on my side, I became a teacher.
The last class I ever taught was themed on courage. This was partly curriculum-design and partly me needing one last lesson on courage.
After I told the students I was taking an extended break from teaching, After I thanked them, after I tried hard not to cry, I asked them to privately answer this question: When you read the word “courageous” who is the first person you think of?
I then read to them the poem “Invictus” that concludes with the verse:
“I am the captain of my fate
I am the master of my soul.”
I told them I think every human being should read this poem everyday, preferably before breakfast, until all verses are memorized and seared in the brain like Newton’s First Law of Motion.
Then we read the chapter “Speaking of Courage” from Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried, a story about a regretful soldier, Norman Bowker, who after the Vietnam War courageously returns home to Des Moines. Bowker, unsure what to do next with his life, drives in a constant loop around a local park replaying moments from before and during the war. And if you’ve been with me for awhile–you know my love for The Things They Carried and to read it on my last day was fitting. Selfishly satisfying.
Then I had the students write an unedited letter to the person they first thought of when they read the word “courageous.” Letter writing taught me more about writing than any English teacher I ever had. When you write a letter you focus squarely on your audience. You attempt the hard work of human connection. And when you concentrate on your audience your writing becomes emboldened and honest. Fierce and purposeful. You avoid ornery language and sophomoric drivel. Your words, if sharpened, cut bone. Like how TS Eliot, Toni Morrison, and Tim O’Brien have kept their words sharp even through the dullness of time. My writing advice is simple: write letters. Yes, letter writing is therapeutic, reflective, and provokes the writer to choose their words carefully. But it also teaches a writer to emotionally invest in their writing. After 18 years of teaching English I can confidently say, for most students, writing was not an emotional investment. Writing was a GPA investment. A means to an end. An exercise in academic pretentiousness that on many nights left me bored and uncut.
But then, as quickly as my teaching career began, it all but ended.
No brass bands. No cheerleaders. No confetti. No balloons. No white horse to ride into the sunsets. No Board of Education members honking car horns outside my house. No Betsy DeVos standing on my porch with an Edible Arrangement.
Just the slow whirl of the ceiling fan above me, a cup of cold coffee in my hand, and the ache of a quiet house.
As I shut down the computer, as the screen faded to black, it occurred to me that teaching and parenting and writing, and probably everything else in between, are less about right and wrong and more about connection. Less about content and appearance and more about having the audacity to be yourself.
When I told Haley, Chase, and Dylan I was taking time off from teaching to attend to my health and spend more time with them, they didn’t have much to say. I turned to Haley, the oldest, the spokeschild of the litter:
“I’ll now be here in the morning to get you off to school.”
“Aren’t you excited?”
At first, I was taken back, annoyed at my kids’ indifference. I mean every adult I told had a reaction. “Wow!” or “Good for you!” or “Best of luck!” But my own kids just shrugged. But then I realized they’re so young. Time is not an urgent matter. They can’t imagine growing up and getting old. They can’t imagine anything beyond today. To them things and people will always be. To them–time is infinite.
A few years ago, in the second week of school, a young man approached my desk after class and asked me if we could talk. I thought maybe about his summer reading assignment grade or about some of the novels I plan to teach in the upcoming school year.
To my surprise the student said something like, “Um… this might be weird because we don’t really know each other but I wanted to talk to you about my father.”
We spent the next hour in a warm classroom, two strangers, talking and laughing and crying about our fathers.
In my final class, that very student, from years ago, appeared on the screen. He thanked me in front of the entire virtual class. He said he was sad I was leaving and I was, even though we had not talked in years, still very important to him. He told me he’s going to grad school. And I joked about feeling old. I joked about time fleeting. I joked to hide the sadness in my throat.
The greatest joy of my career has been having an 18-year conversation with my students. Sure the names and faces change but the desire, both theirs and mine, to connect did not. And connection, no matter how resistant we are to it, is how life is revealed to us.
I want to thank all of my students, both the living and the dead, for lending me their lives. For challenging me. For listening to me. For accepting my advice. For making my job, dare I say, fun. And please know– despite high school’s final celebration jazzed with Pomp and Circumstance and tassels and diplomas and a marching band and packed football stadiums on soft June evenings, the human story never graduates. And it has been, and continues to an honor, to be a character, for better or worse, in so many of your stories.
Newton’s First Law of Motion states an object will not change its motion unless a force acts on it. And in late September of 2020, feeling the joint forces of a pandemic, and my children growing up, and the hole in my brain further compromising my vision and speech and balance, I changed my motion. Changed my direction.
When I told people I was taking a leave from teaching a well-studied friend called it, “an exercise in courage.” A less-studied friend nodded and said, “takes some balls.”
I can’t claim courage. I just know as you age you begin to feel, in your brittle bones, how frail and ephemeral life is. Children become adults. Parents die. Teachers retire. Diseases progress. Time becomes our most valuable yet often least appreciated resource. And you will undoubtedly face the most difficult of human questions, “How will I spend my time?”
I would like to think I spent my time as a teacher– well. I’m proud of my work. I tried hard to make learning not only fun but relevant, and real. And I tried to be my most honest, vulnerable self. For the student’s sake. For my sake. In fact, my best teaching work often happened in the privacy of my heart and mind. Standing in the line at the food store or sitting in a dentist’s office waiting room–I often reflected on what it meant to be 17. To realize adulthood was near. To feel the squeeze of time. To doubt every decision I have or will have to make. To question courage. And I would be lying if I told you I won’t miss those reflections.
I look at the clock. 6:54 am. The school bus will be at the corner in 3 minutes. And at this time, for the past 18 years, I was grinding through morning traffic scratching mental notes for first period. School days, school years flip by like pages in a book. But today, I lean on the counter holding a mug of hot coffee and listen to the sweet patter of growing feet run from the bathroom to the bedroom. There’s a rustle of a school bag. A zip of a lunch bag. The early morning swirls with youthful energy.
Somebody shouts, “What time is it?”
I clear my throat and say, “Time to go.”
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6 comments found
Beautiful, Jay. I’m starting my letter. Thank you.
I’m sad we didn’t get more time with you as a teacher after this summer’s essay writing class. You helped Sam find the words to show colleges the essence of who he is. You helped him find a confidence in his words. Thank you for all you have shared with your students and parents.
I can empathize. You, however, were more eloquent than I. MS threw me out of the educational realm some 18 years ago. Because MS forced me out I wasn’t ready for an afterlife. So I’ve managed to slip deeper and deeper into a depression.
Good luck with whatever your chosen endeavor.
Jay, just remember “keep on writing “
Hi Mr. Armstrong! Hope all is well. I recently read your blog about you not teaching anymore and I burst into tears. I just thought I should write you and just let you know how much of an impact you had on my life and how much I enjoyed your class. You always managed to keep a smile on my face and taught me so much about myself that I didn’t even know. Your dedication to your class and students is unbelievable and that’s why me and so many others loved your class because we knew you cared about us. When we weren’t in school you still managed to make class entertaining and were one of the few things that kept me okay during the pandemic. One of the last things I wrote in your class was a reflection where you made us write about how the pandemic has affected certain aspects of our lives. In one of mine I chose school and wrote about how I will continue to carry the fire for you and I want you to do the same and carry the fire for your students. You have changed more lives than you think and I want you to know that we are all here for you.
Great to hear from you! I’m humbled to know I made such a positive impact on you. I hope you’re doing well! Thanks for the support and keep carrying the fire!