The Lessons They Taught Me

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Last week I had the honor of witnessing the most difficult class I have ever taught, walk across the stage to graduate high school. Over the last decade, my year as an educator has always culminated with this joyous occasion. Administrators, staff, and families truly enjoy celebrating the milestone achievement of their young loved ones. However, this year graduation was different. Although I always manage to get teary-eyed witnessing my former students close a major chapter of their lives, this year’s tears were thicker. They came from a place deeper than ever before.

Upon my arrival in 2015, I immediately heard about the Class of 2018, who were sophomores at the time. Most people described them as an energetic and talkative bunch; however, other descriptions were not as nice. That year I was slated to teach freshmen and juniors. My first teaching encounter with the sophomores would not occur until their following junior year. As a first-year teacher at the school, I wanted to formulate my own opinion of this group. Although I was not their teacher, I saw much of what people said about this class – the good, the bad, and (sometimes) the ugly. Based on what I saw for myself, I was honestly a bit nervous.

In the fall of 2016, I was ready to experience the Class of 2018 as one of their active teachers. Almost immediately, my initial opinions changed. I was proven wrong altogether. They were an interesting group, perhaps the most outspoken I had ever taught. They were never afraid to speak their mind or challenge anyone with whom they disagreed. As a class, when they were happy, you knew it. When they were upset, you definitely knew it. As time went on, their personalities would shine even more, and their quick-wit seemingly seeped into their academics as well. We began to form a bond, and through laughter, disagreements, tears, and disappointments, we became a family. Through countless inside jokes, heart-to-hearts, and moments of being annoyed with one another (which was almost daily), I began knowing them as more than just my students; more as little brothers and sisters. They motivated me to be my best, and I did the same for them. Whether it was my efforts to remove some of them from detention, or some of their efforts to defend me against other students, we genuinely had each other’s back. After a painful month of preparing for the upcoming state exam, we decided to take photos on the last day of school. This was something I had never done before with any class. The school-bell rang with each student embracing me with what felt like a special hug. With tears welling in my eyes, the Class of 2018 had officially become my absolute favorite group of students. Even after their final day of class, they never forgot our bond. Graduating students typically remember their teachers once they leave, but there was something different about the way these students remembered me. Seeing one another in passing was truly special each time.    

This class overcame what many believed to be insurmountable challenges. Less than a month into their senior year, gun violence tragically claimed the life of one of their fellow classmates. As a former student in my history class, the young man who was sadly murdered had once been someone with whom I developed a genuine student-teacher relationship.  I will always remember the many special moments we shared. Whether it was his persistent inquiries to discuss his grade after class, or my tough love responses filled with advice and guidance, I was always proud to witness his continued growth. The Class of 2018 and the entire community was torn apart by the tragic loss, and it can easily be said that we have yet to fully recover from it. Nevertheless, it was truly inspiring to watch the students, faculty, and the entire community rally together with the emotional support necessary to push through such a difficult time. This remarkable senior class led the efforts for us all to heal and recover stronger than ever. Perhaps it was their spark that left such a palpable impression throughout the halls of our school. Perhaps it was their infectious passion to succeed that yielded a spirit of resilience against all odds. This extraordinary class taught me, and every adult in our school, what it means to be united while working together towards a common goal. At a time where their generation seems to be heading in a less favorable societal direction, this group of students reminded me that the future is bright for those who never lose hope.

Graduation day is only the beginning of what will likely be a long list of amazing endeavors, projects, and life lessons for the Class of 2018. I am grateful to have encountered such special souls, and I have become a stronger educator because of their being. They pushed me in ways I never thought to be possible. I feel like this uniquely spirited class taught me more about life than I ever did as their teacher. I am not yet a parent, but I imagine this relationship mirrors the beauty that comes along with having children of your own. It is such a priceless opportunity to witness the growth, failures, and successes of young people you love. Moments like these, and students like the Class of 2018, are the reason why I continue to return to the classroom year after year. I am sure they will remember many of the lessons I taught them, but I will certainly remember the many lessons they taught me.

Emanuel Anzules, Mr. United States 2017