Earlier this week I quietly marked a significant anniversary milestone: it was 50 years to the day that my father died. I exchanged a short text with my brother (“Thinking of you” “I’m thinking of you too”) and mentioned it to my husband, but otherwise the day passed by without much fanfare. I don’t know what I feel, or what I am supposed to feel; it’s mostly just a lifetime of the sense of a great big question mark where a parent is supposed to be. I don’t really know what it feels like to have a father, so I don’t know what I’m missing.
My family has always been stoic, and not much for conversation. My recollection is that my father died and we never really talked about him again. In fairness, that may not be accurate, but that’s how I remember it. Chatting about fond memories is what keeps a person’s presence among us, and since we didn’t do that, I remember very little of what my father might have been like, or how his death affected our family. I remember that my first grade teacher, Miss Robbins, came to my house on that day 50 years ago, and that I sat in her lap, and which chair it was in our living room where I had her undivided attention for a bit. I have only the vaguest recollection of attending the funeral, and none at all of the end of my first grade year or the ensuing summer. Although I was happy several years ago to unearth this picture of us at the beach, I can’t conjure up even a whiff of the memory of the actual event.
As I approached my office building on the morning of The Significant Anniversary, several other people were coming to work at the same time. I thought about how carefully I was protecting the personal gravity of the day’s date, and I realized that the date might hold a silent significance for so many others as well; perhaps it marked a loved one’s birthday; someone else was anticipating a court date that afternoon; another celebrated a year free of cancer. Maybe it would be only after the day unfolded that a new significance would be added to it: a birth; an accident; a diagnosis.
It is May once again, such a stressful time for teachers as you endure testing and try to keep your students interested and, in spite of your exhaustion, begin to look ahead to the next school year. You have come to love your students this year, just like you always do, and some of them, too, have experienced unhappy things over the past nine months. Some of those life events you may know about; some you may be completely unaware of. But I hope you’ll remember that someday, fifty years or more from now, your act of kindness today (one that you yourself will have likely long forgotten) may be the one thing in the blurry haze of memory that your current student remembers with absolute clarity. I don’t remember a thing I learned my first grade year, but I remember Miss Robbins, and her kindness, and how special she made me feel on what was surely the worst day of my six and a half years on the planet until that day in 1967. You have the same opportunity to affect your students in profound and unexpected ways, and I hope you’ll use every minute of the next few weeks to give them the kind of care and attention that they very well may remember for the next half century.