Things to do today:
1. Run final exams through scantron machine.
2. Learn how to use scantron machine.
3. Contemplate contacting the NYS Department of Education to inform them that I never once gave a multiple-choice test before they decided to (again) change the academic standards and I’m relatively certain that bullshit exams measure absolutely nothing besides the ability to memorize trivia.
4. Check in with a student (or six, just to be sure) to confirm that this year’s senior prank will not involve mice.
5. If the prank will involve mice, write a letter of resignation immediately because I can deal with rising heat and the conflagration of senioritis and colleagues who never ever shut up – but I will not deal with rodents or vermin of any kind because I've got limits.
Things to do today:
1. Get Patrick and Beth to sign my yearbook during lunch.
2. Go to the tailor after school with my mom to make sure my dress was taken in enough that my nipples will not be mistaken for accessories on prom night.
3. Buy more Aussie sprunch spray.
4. Tell Mr. Gavriluk how much he’s meant to me and that I appreciate how he read all my poetry and then offered me insightful comments and didn't once tell me that any of the pain I wrote about in a non-rhyming kind of verse was at all pathetic – even though we both know it kind of is.
5. Kill the guy who broke my heart – or just avoid having to see him because plotting a death takes energy and I have exactly none on this strange day in June.
The last day of classes when you’re a teacher is like a fucking holiday – only there's no alcohol. With testing spread out over the last week or scheduled instead for the following two weeks that are purely devoted to exams, the actual last day with students is unlike any other moment of the academic year. There is often little or nothing to do during class on that very last day besides attempt to wrench late work from the few kids in danger of not passing the course for the year. And when you teach seniors and you know that they must pass your class in order to graduate, you will fling yourself across desks just to make them realize that today might actually have to be the one day of this fucking year when they have to do a smidgen of work. You frame your comments, of course, in a manner that makes them think that everything you are saying is for their best interest, but the truth is that you know a small part of you could very well shrivel up and die if you ever have to teach that kid again and you will do maybe anything just so you can finally shut the door behind you while knowing you will never have to see that kid until the day he asks if you would like fries with that.
I drag Carrie with me as a walking moral support system to go see my Science teacher. My job that day? To beg him to pass me even though I cut his class at least once a week, twice come the springtime. I like the man and all – it's not him I was trying to avoid – but I don’t like the class because I don’t really understand the content. I’ve tried all year to make myself stay at least a little bit focused during his lectures, but the second he used a word that seemed too science-y, I would mentally shut off and write notes to my friends instead. Carrie is one of the people I wrote notes to a lot and they were always crammed with really honest thoughts. I never worried that she’d show them to someone or drop the paper I'd folded into a tight triangle with her name written on the outside accidentally in a hallway, an action that could very well lead to permanent social misery. I trusted her – and I was right to trust her. She’s one of the only people who knew everything and so I didn’t ask even a single question when she suddenly pushed me with real force into an empty classroom and shut the door and told me we were just going to wait for a few seconds before we continued to the Science hallway. I stood in a classroom I hadn’t entered once in four years and fiddled with my hair to see if I could spot a split end and I could see my reflection in one of the large windows lining the wall and I saw that my hair had already turned lighter from the sun. Then I glanced over at my friend and I knew without asking that the guy who had gutted me was out in the hallway right now – he was just inches away – and I also knew that I wasn’t in the frame of mind to be around him and Carrie knew that too and she had anointed herself my emotional bodyguard for the day without even needing me to say please.
I have papers about Home Invasion horror tropes to grade and upcoming exams to proctor. My classroom is a total mess this year since there are two of us using it, though the majority of the mess is unquestionably mine. I’ve never had a school-roommate before, but the one I was given this year turned out to be a genuine pleasure and I adore him. I know that most of this last day will be spent signing yearbooks and that there are some kids I will miss and I will tell them that, but I also know there’s just not a whole lot to say to some of my other students and that makes the whole thing feel awkward. My inscription to one kid who arrived unprepared for class every single day of the semester: Dear Billy, I am so sorry you suffer from the rare affliction of being allergic to carrying a pen. Still, it was very nice getting to know you! Take Care, Ms. Kalter. His reaction is to ask me what the word “affliction” means and I suppose my answer qualifies as finally teaching the kid something. Unfortunately, he doesn't write the definition of the new vocabulary word down, but I suppose it isn't his fault since he doesn't have a pen.
There’s this very hot and very dry heat and my curls look like they belong in a magazine because they're for once not at all frizzy. They look springy and I've had friends reach out and touch my head all day, pulling on those curls like Ramona Quimby once pulled the hair of the girl in her kindergarten class. The truth is that it's almost too hot to not pull my hair up, but I'm using it as a shield. I feel safer knowing I can hide beneath it should I see him or (God) if I run into her.
Every classroom smells like donuts, but mine smells like everything bagels. Kids want a party on the last day, and when you're eighteen and stuck in a classroom, nothing says "party" like food. But there is something besides cream cheese occupying the minds of the kids today and it only takes about four seconds to realize that it's not the fear of moving away from the only routine many of them have ever known. It's not even the probably-accurate concern that the prom won't be anything like the movies have made it out to be. No, this concern I'm seeing over and over again isn't a concern at all; it's terror, and it's altogether surprising and yet not surprising in the least.
Two things are abundantly clear today: my Science teacher is a saint for passing me and I am beyond tired of discussions about limos. I'm set to be in a car with five couples and, no, I don't want the guy who emotionally mauled me to be sitting across from me, but I've decided in my mind that it's just a car ride and if I've made it through the last three days, I can make it through another forty minutes, even though I know he'll look so cute in his tux and maybe that image will haunt me for a long while. I'll just add that moment to the rest of the shit that's already haunting me and get through the whole thing with a smile on my face that I hope will not be completely fake the entire time. Besides, just like I'll have to look at him, he'll have to look at me, too. It doesn't matter anymore – it will never really matter again – but I know him well enough to know the night will kill him just a bit and I'm finding some comfort in realizing that my misery will be shared, especially since one of us deserves it.
I am so happy today that I grew up when I did. I am so glad that during the minutes before class started, I would sit in a classroom and actually speak to the people around me instead of staring blankly at my phone. I am so grateful I actually learned the skill of making small-talk and that I found ways to relate to the people around me I didn’t always know so well. I’m actually happy that I had to go all the way home just to see if someone had called and that I needed to work up my nerve to have an actual conversation with a guy I was interested in with my voice instead of just coming up with pithy and flirty comments I could then shoot out via text without even harboring a slight concern that maybe my shaking voice would indicate that I was not nearly as smooth as I was pretending to be. I’m relieved – even today – that suspicions I had back then could not be confirmed by stalking someone’s Instagram or feeling like I had to make my life look both calmer and more exciting than it really felt by posting pictures of myself with a sultry smile jammed across my face, a thigh gap growing ever more pronounced somewhere near the bottom of the frame.
Classes today are simply something to endure, and I knew that going in. It’s like a recurring dream – all of it – where yearbooks are passed back and forth and I say the name of the college I’m going to over and over again and I try to describe what my prom dress looks like without much success. “I sort of look like a ballerina,” I tell my friend Danielle, and then I try to sketch out the dress for her on the back of a handout in Psychology class that covers Jacques Lacan and The Mirror Stage, a handout neither of us believes we will ever need again. She gazes down at my hideous impromptu art and tells me that she’ll wait to see it in person. But useless as that last day of class might be, I feel safe inside those rooms. I’m familiar with those rooms. And, most importantly, I know who will not walk into those rooms. It’s only when the bell chimes that I feel gripped by something unfamiliar that might be anxiety and I remember that I usually feel instantly more calm when I smile so I take a deep breath and I walk through the crowded hallways with at least one friend and those hallways are louder today than usual and the cacophony of voices sounds almost festive and I pretend that I’m not wondering if everybody knows that inside I already feel dead.
It’s only third period when a group of students I know well come walking down the hallway. They’re not coming to my classroom – not yet – but I always see them at this time and they always smile and say hello and they usually walk almost in tandem. Today is different. One of the girls is ahead of the rest of them and she is not walking. She is stalking down that corridor and her eyes are blazing with something I don’t quite recognize but there is a flurry of an understanding that ignites inside of me as I realize that this student is having a very bad day. By the time fourth period rolls around, another group of students enter my room. I remind them that the final project is due via email in a week and that I will not accept late work and then I let them do whatever they want as long as they stay locked in the classroom because today I’m a glorified babysitter and everybody knows it. It’s about five minutes into the period when a few of the students tell me that a private Facebook group is filling up with comments – nasty comments – about people in their grade and that it’s quickly growing more out of control as the seconds tick by. I watch as several of my students make the choice to remove themselves from that group and I see them shake their heads in disgust by some of what they’ve read and it’s in that very second that I realize that some of them will be just fine in this world because at least they’ve learned the exact right time to jump off a drowning ship.
It’s not that I care if anybody knows that he’s with her now – I just don’t want to have to talk about it at all. The questions without real or satisfying answers have raced through my head all day and speaking of it out loud will just make it all feel even more real and I’d give anything to go and live on Fantasy Island for just a little while. I haven’t had to ask anyone not to talk about it, but I think my friends are speaking of it all to one another because I realize more than halfway through the day that I have not been left alone once. I am a Last Day of School charity case, but I don’t tell anyone that I’ve caught on because they’re trying so hard to be slick and I don’t want them to feel badly. I see him coming down the stairs at one point as I am walking up them and I can’t help it: I look right at him and he stares back for a second and I can hear myself say the word, “Hey,” but my voice sounds different to me, like I’m being strangled but trying to convince the person doing the strangling that I’m still alive, and I don’t wait for him to respond before I quicken my steps and make it to the next classroom safely.
It’s seventh period and my students are angry. They tell me the kids who wrote the cruelest things and then posted them for all the world for all to see have left school because the Deans have started investigating what’s going down online. “They’re cowards,” one of my boys tells me, and I can see that they’re all rallying around someone in my classroom who has been a bit of a target today. “That guy will never leave this town,” says a guy I always thought had a bit of a cruel streak inside of him, though he never once directed a bit of it my way in all the time I’ve known him. “He will be the person you’ll see hanging out at a gas station when you come home from college. He’s a total dick and he will make nothing of his life and saying shit about other people through a screen is going to be his crowning moment.” The other kids nod and so do I because I know the kid he’s talking about and what my student is saying is more than accurate and I am so angry that some of my kids have had their last day of high school completely ruined, the idea of chastising my student for using profanity doesn’t even occur to me. What I do tell my class as a whole is that living their entire lives online might be what they know, but it’s also dangerous. I implore them to be kind to others and to take their friends to task should they see those friends spreading rumors and fanning flames of hate that sweep like a wildfire online because those fires, once they are lit, can never really be extinguished. And when the bell rings to end class, the students come up to hug me and I ask the one whose day might have been tarnished if she is okay and she kind of squares her shoulders and looks stronger than I’ve ever seen her look and she tells me that she will be fine and I know that she’s only faking half of that confidence.
In spite of the fact that I would much prefer to be underneath my covers and asleep so I can avoid what’s real, I have been taken to Dan’s house so we can all talk about the plan for after the prom. Sheila drives me there and I glance into the mirror outside the passenger window and I notice that my eyes look flat even as the rest of me looks totally normal. “We’ll just stay for a little while,” she says and I nod and put my hand out the window and start moving it up and down so I can feel the dry air sweep through my fingertips. Dan’s house is small and we all congregate in the living room and I’m sitting on the floor with my back against a couch and Annemarie is playing with my hair. I don’t say anything while a debate rages on around me about whether we should leave for the Hamptons on the night of the prom or the next morning because I don’t care anymore and I would rather not even go and the only thing that makes me smile is when Patrick tells me he’s bringing stuff to make s’mores. I try not to glance up at him or at her, though I notice they’re not sitting next to one another as we all make plans and I’m finding it hard to decide which one of them I hate more and it’s right when I realize that I don’t actually hate either one of them because I love both of them that the tears fill my eyes and I get up and go to the bathroom before anybody can see.
The entire Facebook group where the viciousness began and then grew like an oozy virus has been officially shut down and the seniors begin to look just a bit more lost as they inch closer to the very end of the day. Earlier, there was almost no response when I asked how they were feeling. By early afternoon, the responses come out of them like waves of uncertainty. I hear words like “surreal” and “depressing” and more than five kids tell me they’re sadder than they expected they’d feel. The hugs I get when they leave the room are more frequent as ninth period inches closer. Three students hand me letters telling me how much I have meant to them and reading their words makes me tear up because some of them are really quite special and I’m grateful they could tell that I felt that way about them, that the feeling was mutual. And halfway through ninth period, the announcement comes on that invites all the seniors out to the football field for the countdown celebration of their very last day of school and they scoop up their yearbooks and I find myself engulfed in even more hugs and I wave at them like they’re embarking on an ocean liner to a faraway land while my colleague escorts them to the turf because I’m wearing very high heels that will poke holes in the field so it’s better I stay behind. “This is the craziest babysitting assignment ever,” my co-teacher says to me with a laugh. “Next year, I wear the stilettos and you take them outside!”
I’m out of the bathroom and my mascara didn’t run at all and I’m sitting on the arm of Dan’s couch now, my legs dangling over each side like I’m riding a horse. I see that the two of them are sitting beside one another and I just flip back my hair and remind myself that I can handle anything and the second I hear my mind say it, I know it’s not just a coping mechanism; it’s something that will always be true. It’s right about then when Kevin announces that he’ll be having a graduation party the week after graduation and that everyone in the room needs to come and I look up and tell him that I just got a job as a sleepaway counselor for the summer – I arranged it just last night – and I’m leaving for eight weeks the morning after graduation so I can’t be there. I notice a clear look of shock pass over the face of the guy who hurt me and I know he’s surprised that I’m not staying around to pine over him because that’s what his girls have always done, but then again, I’m not like the rest of them and I never really will be.
From the third floor of the school, I can hear the roar and the rumble of cheers grow as the clock inches closer to 1:50. Despite the earlier anger they directed at one another, there is still a sense of celebration in the air that is palpable and I can actually hear the joy in their voices when the timer runs out and high school officially ends. And odd as it might sound, I’m pretty sure that many of them have learned more today about life and cruelty and compassion and personal strength than they ever learned while sitting at a desk in a classroom – and really, isn’t that truly what high school is for?
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.