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Diminishing Influence, Becoming Invisible and the Hardest Part of Being a Teacher

The last time I couldn't sleep, I didn't count sheep. I counted years. My teacher years. Since this is my 32nd year in the classroom, it took a while, but I surprised myself by remembering all of them.

The memories were so hauntingly vivid that they kept me awake. Saddened by the evanescence of connections, particularly teacher-student ones, I lied there wondering why relationships evaporate. Perhaps only teachers understand the exceptionality of the friendships forged in classrooms.

At the start of a typical year, teachers teach strangers. Nine months later, after our lives are shared, we’re family. Well, not all of us. I wish I connected with every kid, but I don't. This used to torment me. Now it only bothers me. I've accepted that no matter what I do, no matter how hard I try, I'm not going to be everyone's cup of tea.

Yet, every year, there are the special ones who enter my life, become part of my heart, then depart. Remembering sad moments and events doesn't always make us sad. Usually, we're glad they're gone. It's the happy memories that crush.

Back when I was still relatively young (39), "cool" and relevant to the majority of my students, I got to make a career day speech about teaching. We were supposed to cover the pros and cons of our profession. "The best part about being a teacher," I said, "is that every year we get to make a whole bunch of new friends. The worst part is that every year they leave us."Afterward, one of my favorites - a student who would become my T.A. the following year - told me how much she liked my talk and being my student.

I haven't seen her in fifteen years. We never think they'll leave, but they always do.

A long time ago (vague because I can't remember how long), I read a short article in Readers Digest. I think it was called "Friends for the Road" but I'm not sure. (I searched for it, but couldn't find it.) It was about how when cowboys used go on long cattle drives they would sometimes connect with other cowboys and become good buddies over a cup of coffee at evening campfires. Then, after a few days, they would go their separate ways and probably never see each other again.

Friends for the road

The story was a metaphor for most if not all our relationships. The lesson is that even when our closest people don't stay in our lives, it doesn't make them any less important when they are there -- including those180 days when students are in our class.

What my ego has never totally accepted, however, is how quickly we go from hero to zero. Maybe it's just my silly perception, but since day one in the classroom, I've always felt at least a tiny bit special. In Prince of Tides, my favorite writer, the late Pat Conroy, wrote that nothing made his heart sing as loudly as when he was called teacher. I love being called that, too. But when it's over, it's over. The school year ends and poof! We're out of sight, out of mind.

Just like in the non-school world where, inevitably, our influence and relevance wanes. As parents, we regress from the center of our kids' solar system to mere planets and moons. Google "When you get old, you become invisible" and you'll get 10.5 million results. It's sad but natural. Cruel but necessary. Ultimately, we're all victims of creative destruction. The old is disregarded, replaced by the fresh. Fresh is fun. Old just hurts.

Steve Jobs called death "life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new." There are many kinds of death, including the death of relationships and relevance.

Of late, I've been thinking a lot about death. Morbid? Maybe. But as Jobs inferred, it's motivating. "Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life."

Yet, there's a lot about life I'll miss. Swimming in the ocean. Good food. Great talks. Reading. Writing. Movies. Learning. October sunsets. Mountain lakes. Ocean waves. That post-workout feeling. Most animals. Some people.

On the other hand, the list of things I won't miss continues to grow. Greed, selfishness, laziness, persecution, environmental destruction, inequality, ignorance, pretentiousness, animals suffering, feeling ignored, diminishing influence, haunting loneliness, becoming invisible and people leaving my life.

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