The final gathering of the 2011-2012 school year at Joplin East Middle School was not in the auditorium as originally scheduled.
That auditorium, the pride and joy of our new building, was in ruins, along with half of the school following the May 22 tornado that destroyed a large section of our city.
Instead of the awards assembly and talent show, traditions we brought to East from our old school, we met at the Fourth Street Bowl, 18 days after our school year ended early.
For the seventh and eighth graders, it was the first opportunity they had to see their friends since the tornado. Many of them had wondered if they would ever see those friends again. In the days immediately following the tornado, many were not sure if their friends had survived.
So the first order of business, even before they picked up their belongings, which had been removed from lockers and placed in black trash bags, were hugs and in what immediately became a Joplin tradition after May 22, the tornado story.
Some of the students told harrowing tales of survival, while others almost apologized as they revealed that they were not in the tornado's path.
One student, seventh grader Zach Williams, did not survive the storm. Somehow the rest of them had made it through.
After the hugging, the next stop was the table where eighth grade reading teacher Andrea Thomas and seventh grade math teacher Areke Worku were distributing yearbooks.
The books did not contain the event which has come to symbolize the school year, but they were a much-needed chronicle of better days.
One student returned a book she had borrowed from me during our third quarter research project, a biography of Martin Luther King.
I put the book and other things I had been carrying on the table and snapped some photos of students bowling, playing games, or just sitting at tables talking, a simple activity they had always taken for granted, but one that meant so much to them now.
The two hours passed quickly and soon the goodbyes started. Though it seemed like I had seen nearly all of my students, that was nowhere close to the truth. A quick glance at the side room showed stacks and stacks of trash bags, the belongings of students who were not able to make it, teenagers who had literally scattered to the winds, books, clothes, pencils, photos, mementoes that would most likely never be reclaimed.
I always feel sadness at the end of a school year. There are always a few students who have almost worn out their welcome by the end of the school year, but when the last few days come, I always hate to let those students go.
My eighth graders from the 2011-2012 school year had been spared my traditional last day speech, when I tell them they may not be in my class any more, but they will always be my students.
Hopefully, they know that, but there is no way for knowing for sure.
I helped carry the trash bags to a couple of trucks to take back to North Middle School, the center of operations for East until we move into our new building in August.
The event may have served to bring some sort of closure to students, but it had the opposite effect on me. It was great to see the students who had been able to make it, but the overall atmosphere was depressing.
When I reached my apartment, I put the Martin Luther King biography on a table and for the past few weeks, it sat there. Finally, last night, 40 days after that last goodbye, I picked up the book to put with the rest of my collection which I had salvaged from my classroom.
As I lifted it, I saw what I thought was a bookmark, but upon closer examination, I realized it was an envelope. I opened the letter and started reading.
One of my eighth graders had written a goodbye message, one which mentioned many things that happened in the class and even made mention of my status as one of those privileged few who only has a birthday once every four years.
It ended this way:
I hope you keep teaching until you're 25 (or 100, since you are really only 13 ¾). I'm so glad I got to have a teacher like you! I hope you have had as good of a year as I have. I will come back and visit someday to check in on my favorite writing teacher.
It was just one letter, but at that moment, it was the one letter I needed, closure on the school year that never ended.