06/27/2013 05:04 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

A Sense of Ending

The school year is a wild creature. School time crawls and then convulses; there is at once too much of it as one contemplates the long hallway of a semester, and then suddenly too little, resulting in a yearly scramble: projects skid to completion, grades are due, classroom walls are suddenly freighted with projects and papers. And the school year has an added oddity: multiple and dramatic beginnings and endings. It lurches to a start in the fall, careens around the New Year and races on, to finally slam shut on our fingers in June. Students and faculty say goodbye, we pack up rooms with cardboard and tape, and talk about summer plans and the faraway Next Year. Two months later, we all return, happy to hear of news and adventures as we unpack these same boxes to begin the practice of school once again.

Our dealings with beginnings and endings have been on my mind as I closed down yet another teaching year last week, and watched all the things on my walls (quotations, editorials, pictures of the poetry reading and the performance of the Odyssey, Brutus' to-do lists...) become meaningless. These works are powerful in their genesis and practice, but the evidence of a classroom needs the context that comes with the students and whatever it is that spools out of our work together. That work, for better or for worse, is over at the last bell. The students festively pack up and teachers try to remember what worked well or didn't, gleaning in the fading semester for what may be useful.

Cultivating a sense of beginning and ending resonates with the work we do with text, teaching students to recognize the signs of change: a quickening, a turn, and an untying. What is literature, any literature, but the story of how something changes? Joan Didion says, "we tell ourselves stories in order to live." I would add to that. We learn stories to learn how to live, and to understand what it means to be alive, which means recognizing that change happens. Otherwise, the story is doomed to be one long description.

Through this focus, the practice and routine of beginning and ending filters into the classroom itself. We set an observable, learnable pattern of the day: warm-up, lesson, discussion, practice. We map the semester, demonstrating the existence of a time when the novel will be over, the paper will be printed, the project will be performed.

We teach students how to start every September. Some teachers start slowly, with icebreakers, gentle diagnostic assignments (what ideas have survived the long summer?), while others throw themselves and associated students into the breach: a test or challenging assignment that definitively declares the end of the slack and sets the tone and momentum for the work ahead.

Similarly, the year ends with bangs and whispers: parties, presentations, even a movie. My students also go back to the beginning: on their first day of school, they write a letter to themselves for the last day. What do they want to make sure they remember? What is on their minds right now? I gesture to June, an eternity away. They write and I lock the letters in my file cabinet. Without fail, almost everyone has forgotten when the letters re-appear, and that last day has an excited, watchful silence as students scan the hopes and fears of their previous incarnations. Whatever the activity, I want students to recognize that something is ending, and in that way, needs to become a finished chapter in a much longer story.

This year, my sense of ending was especially acute. For the first time, I wasn't teaching students that would come back in the fall, occasionally poking their heads in as the school year swept them up. Graduating high school is the last time students end together. Yes, college may have a momentous ceremony as well, but it has a much less shared significance. Rarely have people sitting next to you at that graduation walked the same halls, and lock-stepped through the same progression of teachers and classrooms. For the rest of their lives, they will end and begin largely on their own. Though finishing high school may at first appear to be the end of the story, it rather marks the completion of the exposition: the rest now needs to be lived.

After the first graduation rehearsal, I met with the valedictorian and salutatorian who will bookend the ceremony next week. We reviewed the meanings behind their speeches, and how each gave the words to this inchoate sense of ending. As we worked together, talking about appeals, imagery and analogy, it reminded me that this ceremony does what a classroom and a text does; it enacts the experience of change, one word at a time. Next week, these people will walk in, clad in polyfiber blends and mortarboards, and will still be high school students -- it will take the pomp and circumstance to tell them it is time, and that they are ready to go.