A Letter to My Students, April 26

Dear 2019–2020 Students,

As you can see from the photo, I am going out on a limb here, out of my comfort zone. That photo is your French teacher, taken during her senior year at Harris High School in Spruce Pine, NC. A group of us were named Outstanding Seniors by the faculty and we went to a local dentist’s house, way up on top of a mountain, to have our photos taken for the yearbook. Some of my best friends were in that group. In Spruce Pine, we all went to school together from first to 12th grade. A small town for you. I saw quite a few of them at our 40th reunion just a couple of years ago. I am friends with most of them on Facebook. I text with one of them regularly to discuss Hallmark movies and life in general. One was my roommate our freshman year at ASU. One was my seventh grade boyfriend (he was new to SP and my best friend’s cousin). One was my apartment mate my second year living in Chapel Hill and my second year teaching at Durham Academy. Many of us are thinking about our own senior year in high school because the Class of 2020 is missing out on the normal experiences of the second semester of high school. In light of all that is going on in the world around us right now in a way that seems trite and trivial. Prom, senior skip day, yearbook dedication and that walk across the stage to get the diploma. But rituals are a very important part of our lives. They are not trivial. Seniors, I wanted to sit in Page Auditorium and watch you go down that aisle, nervously looking down to make sure you don’t trip on the steps, and then an hour later strut back up the other aisle with huge grins on your faces.

School was my refuge. I loved it even when I didn’t. Growing up in my family was not easy. Most of you have heard some of it … alcoholic father, not much money, so I won’t go into that. Mama Mildred and Daddy Tommy were proud of me. I knew that. Neither of them graduated from high school, joining the Army and eloping instead. Off I went to Appalachian, to France and then to Durham Academy. 44 years since that day in May 1976 when I graduated from HHS. No longer a Harris High Blue Devil, now a Mountaineer. 40 years since I walked across the stage in Boone, NC, to get that diploma. This is my 40th year of teaching. You are my 40th class. I wanted a party. Cupcakes, macarons, decorations, the whole thing. I wanted to celebrate with you. Eighth-graders, I wanted to sit in the audience in Taylor Hall and see your baby pictures flash across the screen and hear Mr. Meredith’s rap that includes all of your names. I wanted to sit in the front row at our closing ceremony and watch you go up the stairs, get a handshake from Mr. Ulku-Steiner and a piece of paper telling you that you had survived Middle School, going back down the stairs and walking right past me, maybe catching my eye, maybe not. I wanted to give all of you hugs while we ate cookies and drank lemonade. A hug whether you wanted it or not. My first class of eighth grade advisees. I am grieving over the loss of all of that, as I know you are. It’s okay to feel sad. And mad. I have moments when I just have to let it wash over me and stop fighting it. And cry.

One thing I know for sure, I will never take walking into my classroom in the mornings for granted again. I will never take you for granted. Even when you are grumpy and don’t want to answer my Question of the Day, advisees. Even when you are silly and I have to send you “The Look.” Even when you complain about being tired or that your lunch is lousy or that you have way too much homework. I will still nag about your stuff, cleaning off desks after lunch, getting to tutorial on time. I miss even that.

A piece of advice, if I still have your attention — be kind to your parents. They didn’t sign up for homeschooling you. They trusted me to do that when they dropped you off every morning. I remember promising Son #1 that I would NEVER homeschool him. It wouldn’t have been pretty and he would be sorely lacking in math/science/tech skills if that had been the case. And I am pretty sure that Son #2 wouldn’t be working from home as an attorney if I had been responsible for his education, other than Middle School French. Help your parents. Ask to help cook a meal. Cook a meal yourself. Wash the dishes or load the dishwasher. Ask your parents about their middle school/high school days. And no eye-rolling. Ask to see their yearbooks. Okay, maybe a few eye-rolls there. Listen to music they loved in middle/high school. Son #2 has been sending me daily “homework”— YouTube videos of music he loves and musicians he knows I love — Fleetwood Mac, Phil Collins and Genesis, Michael McDonald and the Doobie Brothers, The Eagles, Dire Straits.

Suggestion #2: Go out and play. It’s spring and we are seriously having the prettiest spring I can remember. It’s going to get hot and humid before this confinement is over, so enjoy it now. Get out that phone you can’t live without and take pictures of flowers. Your pets. The lizard that keeps running across the porch trying to hide from you. Your siblings. Ant hills.

So, I’ve made myself feel better. I was pretty weepy at first. Really feeling sad. Today is lesson-planning day for next week. We have less than a month of remote learning left for the year. The best part of my week? Seeing you online during our class meet-ups. Seriously. So, hang in there and I will see you again on Tuesday from the comfort of my really uncomfortable chair in the office I have made for myself in Adorable Granddaughter’s room at Ma’s house. We will see this through virtually. We will be back together one of these days.

— Teresa Engebretsen, Middle School French teacher