04 May 2018

Bittersweet Goodbyes

By Art Taylor

Yesterday was the last day of my classes this semester at George Mason University. Though plenty of grading still lies ahead, the final face-to-face meeting with students—more than the ultimate posting of the grades themselves—always feels like the actual close of a course.

I've often used the word bittersweet to talk about this time of year. The sweet part is easy: No doubt it's a thrill and a relief to have gotten through all the classes and lesson prep and grading and everything; as I'm writing this, one fellow professor passed by my office, and when I asked how things were going, she said, "Well, we're almost there, so... great!" But all endings arrive with a persistent sense of something lost—and mixed in with the "Whew, glad that's over!" the end of the semester has often left me with anxious little questions and small bits of... pensiveness? melancholy?

Was the course a success? What didn't we cover well? Did the students learn anything? These questions linger.

And deeper than any academic second-guessing: Because my classes are often workshops, because of the intimacy of the workshop setting, because of the connections that are built between all of us, some sense of loss regularly rears its head in early May, as we all take that step of saying goodbye to one another after months of sharing not just our time and our work but also little bits of ourselves.

This semester, that feeling has hit me particularly hard.

One of the students in my class has taken at least one course with me every semester for the past three-and-a-half years—with the exception of his first semester, basically his entire college career. When he landed in my fiction workshop the spring of his freshmen year, he was already distinguishing himself as a careful, thoughtful craftsman in his own right and as a leader in workshop discussions too—able to zero in on problems with his fellow students' drafts, to offer helpful suggestions to improve those drafts, and also to celebrate others' accomplishments, to praise what was working well. Semester after semester, he has honed those skills further—across the board. Here at the end, he's proven himself a top-notch writer and clear-eyed thinker about craft—working on a novel that I feel certain will find publication somewhere down the road.

It's been a joy to see his talents evolve. I'm proud to have shared somehow in his accomplishments. I'm going to miss having him in the classroom. I feel that loss.

Along the way, he has also become part of a core of fine creative writing students—maybe has been central to the formation of that group, in fact. Over time, another of his writer friends joined my classes, and then another, and another. Very often they've signed up again the next semester for some class I'm teaching, and then the next as well. Together this cadre of writers has displayed tremendous talent in their individual works and such extraordinary support and encouragement for one another.... They've become the closest of friends together, and in many ways they've become my friends as well. My latest workshop—Advanced Creative Nonfiction—has surely been one of the most exciting and energetic courses I've ever led, and that's thanks not to me but to the high caliber of the writers sitting in the circle around the room and to the intensity of those friendships and that support.

And now, they're all graduating.

So multiply those sentences above ten-fold:

It's been a joy to see their talents evolve—and soar. I'm proud to have shared somehow in their accomplishments, the hard-earned brilliance, the stunning breadth. I'm going to miss having them in the classroom—all of them. I feel that personal loss—profoundly—even as I celebrate all the great things ahead for this group.

Some fine writers are finding their way out into the wider world this month.

Keep a watch for what they do next.


7 comments:

janice law said...

A nice reminder of why teaching is the best of professions!

Paul D. Marks said...

A very poignant post, Art. One of my favorite bands is the Kinks. They have an album called Schoolboys in Disgrace. And one of the songs on there is called The Last Assembly. Your post made me think of that song. Here's some of the lyrics:

As we sang for the very last time.
Gather round, gather round,
Everybody gather round.
Come and join our last assembly,
Let us smile, wipe away all the frowns.
Gather round, gather round,
Everybody gather round.
As we stood at the last assembly,
All my friends came to wish me goodbye.
Gather round, gather round,
Gather round, gather round,
Everybody gather round.
As I stand at the last assembly,
I just can't keep the tears from my eyes.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks, Janice and Paul, for the kind comments--and thanks too, Paul, for the lyrics here. I don't know that song but will give it a listen this morning!

Melodie Campbell said...

I also have a teaching post on Sleuthsayers this month, Art. My summer term starts next Wed. It always makes me reflect on why I'm doing this. And then - when I see one or two of my former students at my book launch - it reminds me. My goal is to be there at their first book launch. That's the ultimate reward!

Eve Fisher said...

Teaching is one of the most rewarding jobs in the world. Every time you see the light come on in a student's eyes, well, that's the day you know why you're a teacher.

Barb Goffman said...

What a lovely post, Art. You've described what I tried to show in my "Whose Wine" story, the happiness mixed with melancholy. I hope your students continue to find success--personal and, eventually, professional--with their writing.

Mary Sutton said...

Great post, Art. I bet those kids remember you for years and years to come.

Mary/Liz