Things I’ll Miss about New Jersey, Part 2: My Students

I’ve never really been good at goodbyes. My mind tends to keep me in denial until at some point my heart overrides my brain and the emotions of the moment hit me all at once. It happened every time a missions trip ended and I realized I might never again see people with whom I had formed close friendships. It was the worst when I would visit my wife in Russia before we got married, and I would board a plane in Moscow to come home not knowing when I would see her again. Each time, I ended up going through awkward motions, acting like everything was normal, up until the time that it hit me. Today was another one of those times.

Even though it was my last day at school, for the most part it felt like any other day. I made it through yearbook signings, goodbyes, and an afternoon with one of classes without even feeling all that sentimental. The first time I started to feel any amount of sadness was in the middle of graduation. It started to hit me that there was going to be a finality to the evening that doesn’t usually accompany graduations, which for the most part have their sentimentality mitigated by celebrating the seniors’ achievement, the knowledge that they will come back to visit, and the anticipation of another class rising to take their place. Even so, I made it through the rest of the evening fine. In fact the vast majority of interactions I had with students were jovial in nature, rather than sad.

with some of my students on my last day

That all changed on the drive home. Being alone in the car for 45 minutes made it all sink in, and a sense of loss overcame me to the point that for the first time in this whole process, I shed tears over it. I haven’t even read the notes students wrote for me in my copy of the yearbook yet because my emotions still feel too raw to do so.

For the most part, the past five years have been exhausting: physically, emotionally, spiritually, pretty much every way possible. I’ve lost sleep and sacrificed time with my family. I’ve been aggravated and annoyed, overworked and overstimulated. But the one thing that always made it all worth it was the fact that I didn’t do those things for a job, a boss or a bottom line; I did them for my students.

One of the verses I’ve grown to love is 1 Thessalonians 2:8:

So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us.

Over the past 5 years I’ve tried not only to teach history, but to pour my life into my students and model Jesus to them. Some of them have been a part of my life for the entire 5 years (or 17% of my life and almost 30% of theirs, which makes it seem like an even more significant amount of time). Losing them makes me feel like I’m losing a part of myself. The fact that my role in their life is now over just hurts.

It hurts because they’ve become such a huge part of my life, often times having as great an impact (if not greater) on my life than I had on theirs. They’ve shone a spotlight on my faults, driving me back to the cross for completion and renewal. They’ve taught me (probably unknowingly) how to love deeper and parent better. They’ve given me a taste of ministry by confiding in me, asking me questions, and challenging my own beliefs and assertions.

But it also hurts because I know that in many regards my effort was inadequate. I’ve allowed personality differences to ruin opportunities to instruct. I’ve cracked jokes (my basic defense mechanism against pretty much any emotion) when I should have been tender. I’ve shown tough love when I should have shown grace. One of my greatest fears is that rather than being a conduit for God to work in the lives of my students, that I’ve allowed myself to get in the way and as a result hindered their relationship with him.

It’s tough for me to just let go, walk away, and trust that God will fix my mistakes without me. It’s tougher still to know that people who have been fixtures in my life will now be relegated to memories or fleeting connections on Facebook.

Like with any loss, I know that life will march on. The busyness of preparing to move will allow my mind to once again push the emotions to the background. Building new relationships with a new group of students in Louisiana will also help. But at least for tonight, I’m allowing myself to mourn the loss and praying that if our paths never cross again, I’ll at least hear of their continued growth in their walk with God.

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