This time last year I waxed poetically about the melancholy that surrounded me during the end of the year. Students and teacher packing it up and taking off. Last year I felt melancholy. This year? I feel downright depressed.
That’s because last year I wasn’t that close with the graduating seniors. Technically I was their teacher, but in China senior year classes are not very important and in a class of 30, four might show up. So while I enjoyed some of them, I just wasn’t that close with them.
But this year is a different story. This year I wasn’t just close, I was CLOSE. The graduates this year were cute sophomores when I came to China. They were my first students, and we got tight pretty fast. (I’ve written about them several times.)
I haven’t seen them for half a year (2nd semester seniors have no class and are expected to leave school) and I knew their departure was inevitable, but it didn’t strike me until last weekend. That’s because last weekend they all came back. They had to give a thesis defense so everyone single one of them was required to be in school for 2 days. Two glorious days (seriously the weather was amazing) in which we got to hang out, take pictures and spend time together.
On the first day they all called me to take pictures. Chinese universities don’t have a graduation ceremony like we do in the west. No assembly, no words of wisdom, no famous speakers. All the school did was provide 30 graduation gowns (there is 120 students all together) and a couple chairs for pictures.
But that didn’t stop anyone from having fun. We stood outside for hours in the broiling sun, swapping robes and taking pictures.
After hours of photos a few students and I ate together. Then they headed off to their rooms to prepare their thesis defense and I went home and wallowed in depression. I even listened to depressing music on my iPod.
The next night they all had dinner together. All of them. There are 4 senior classes, each with about 30 students in it, and they were, for the first time in my experience, gathered together in the same room for the first time. It was like prom or something for me. The table I was sitting at was located in the front, so I had to pass by every single student, many who I hadn’t seen in half a year or more. Let me tell you I felt like a rock star with everyone yelling my name and saying hi.
“We were taking bets on how long it would take you to reach us,” said one of my students when I finally sat down with them. “We bet 30 minutes.”
Then the dinner began but people managed only a few bites between taking pictures.
There was, of course, quite a bit of drinking going on. China has no drinking age and you can’t have an important banquet without toasting everyone constantly and draining your glass after every toast.
At one point the food was completely forgotten and everyone was walking around the restaurant. I was having a great time, talking, laughing, taking pictures, when I suddenly turned around and noticed everyone crying. Not just crying but sobbing.
I was totally unprepared for this turn of events, but I guess this momentous occasion and alcohol had done the trick. I then preceded to spend the next hour or so comforting the worst off. “Don’t cry! Don’t cry!” I kept saying. It was one teacher order they did not obey.
There was a whole lotta love going on. (And a whole lotta “I love you man’s!”) I joked that the floor was slick not with spilt beer, but spilt tears.
Some of the students will come back to school one last time to pick up their diploma, but they will come at different times and different dates (and I will probably already be traveling) so this was really the last hurrah. When I felt the time was right, I slipped out the door unnoticed, taking one long glance back at them. 2 students noticed and waved at me.
All the current sophomore students noticed I was depressed over the following days. “Don’t worry,” they said. “You still have us!”
“You don’t understand, that only makes it worse!” I replied.
Not long ago, these graduation seniors were little sophomores sitting in my writing class, speaking class, and reading class thinking graduation was far away. And yet, it arrived in a blink of an eye. Also, while I taught the graduates only one year I have currently taught the sophomores every semester for the past 2 years and will continue for the third year. Their leaving will be the chernobyl of my time in China. I am already steeling myself for it
When I first decided to teach in China, teaching was actually a very small part of my plan. I didn’t really think much about it until we arrived and I was forced to do it. Yet now, being a teacher is a big part of my life and my identity. But in all the teaching websites and planning books I’ve read no one has warned me about this part of teaching.
Nobody told me it would be this hard to say goodbye.