03/20/2013 02:02 pm ET Updated May 20, 2013

Salvador's Last Day


The first day he came into my class, Salvador told me his family would be moving soon.

"How soon?" I asked.

"I dunno. Maybe next week."

The next week came and went, and Salvador was still there. He was a sweet 13-year-old, and he seemed to like my media studies class. He participated in discussions, asked lots of questions, and often lingered afterward to help me straighten up. I noticed early on that he had to squint hard to see the whiteboard from across the room, and I made a mental note to check on getting him some glasses.

"I'm gonna miss this class when I move," he told me a week after he'd first mentioned it.

"Is that still happening?" I asked.

"Yeah. I don't wanna go, but my parents say we gotta."

Whenever he'd bring it up, I'd try to get more details, but Salvador didn't seem to know any. Or if he did, he wasn't sharing. He wasn't sure what neighborhood the family was moving to, how far away it was, what school he'd be going to, or even if he'd still be in Chicago. It was all a mystery. A couple colleagues told me he'd been saying he was going to move since the previous school year. But every time it turned out to be a false alarm.

After a few weeks, I began to wonder if Salvador's "I'm moving" story was just that -- a story he told to make sure his teachers noticed him. Maybe he imagined us across a crowded room, without our glasses, squinting to bring him into focus, to see who he really was. Maybe the story was a symbolic wave of the arms that said, "Hey! Don't forget about me!"

Or maybe he just didn't want to vanish from our school unnoticed, which isn't uncommon in city schools. Living in poverty doesn't always afford parents the luxury of planning ahead, and I remember occasions when, out of nowhere, the intercom buzzed, a kid was called down to the office, and that was it. Gone.

But maybe it wouldn't happen at all. The moving date kept getting pushed back. "The end of February," Salvador told me. When March came, he said he'd be leaving "after the ISAT test is over." But the following Monday the ISAT was finished and he was still in school. After class the next day, he told me his parents had started moving some of their stuff to a new apartment, but he was still vague on the details and unsure when he'd be transferring.

That Friday, Salvador's class worked on media analysis projects while I met with individual students at a back table. The period had been kind of hectic, and I was frustrated with the lack of focus some students were showing. When I looked up and saw Salvador out of his seat and taking pictures with an iPad instead of working on his assignment, I yelled at him.

"Salvador, what are you doing?" He froze, and other kids' heads turned toward him. "Turn off the iPad! Sit down! Did I say it was time to take pictures?" My tone was harsh, and Salvador, embarrassed that I'd called him out, slunk back to his seat. He didn't stay after class to help clean up.

When the last bell rang at 2:45, I began my usual end-of-the-day routine: shifting piles of papers and books around on my desk, locking cabinets, checking my email. I heard a knock and looked up to see Salvador standing in the doorway.

"I just wanted to come say goodbye," he said, eyes cast down at the floor. "This was my last day. I start my new school Monday."

Even with all the lead-up to this moment, I somehow felt I'd been blindsided by it. He was leaving now?

I fumbled for words, told him we'd miss him, that he'd make new friends, that I'd had to change schools mid-year when I was in fourth grade. I asked if he was feeling sad. He bit his lower lip, looked at his shoes, and nodded.

So many things were rushing through my head. Why hadn't I seen this coming? Why had I never gotten him the glasses he needed? Why had I yelled at him just a few hours earlier? Was that why he'd waited until now to tell me this was his last day?

If only he'd told me that morning during class, I could've done something. I could've created space for closure with the rest of the group, allotted time for students to wish him well, taken a group photo, passed around a card for them to sign. Something. Instead, despite all the fair warnings he'd provided of his departure, it was passing as unceremoniously as the daily washroom break. Monday would come and Salvador's chair would simply be empty.

It's not that I wanted to make a big production of it. But if creating a welcoming and affirming classroom environment is part of a teacher's job, isn't it also our responsibility to say a decent goodbye?

In one of the final scenes of the film version of The Life of Pi, the adult Pi Patel says, "I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye." Thanks to Salvador knocking on my door, I got that moment. But I couldn't help feeling that he'd hoped for it to be different somehow.

Value-added formulas for teacher evaluation don't account for how one says goodbye to a kid. They can't. Like so much of teaching, how we respond to the loss of a student -- whether to violence, a terminal disease, or a family's relocation -- is not a science, not something that can be neatly quantified. It's another reminder that teaching is about the heart as much as the head, about our relationships with students as much as our success at improving their "achievement."

With crucial issues like school closings and over-testing looming over the heads of teachers in Chicago and elsewhere, stories like this one may seem insignificant. But when the year winds down in a few months, I won't be thinking about my students' ISAT or MAP scores. I'll be thinking about moments like this -- small but indelible moments that are the essence of a life in classrooms.

And I'm sure I'll be thinking of Salvador, too -- hoping that wherever he is, he feels fully seen by his teachers, and forgives my botched farewell.