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When Pandemic Life Gives You Lemons, You Take ThemShari Bender
Another last Monday morning.
I head out to work for the almost-final day of the school year. Summer is looming in the northwest corner of Washington, but the skies are typical gray, swollen and threatening to burst.
In three days I’ll be set free on summer break. In my mind, Alice Cooper belts out the chorus of a song from my youth — "School’s Out For Summer!" Even as a teacher and wrestling coach for more than three decades, I still get as giddy as the kids when school lets out. Today, on cue, that familiar excitement surfaces, but this year is different. I could call it bittersweet, but I’ve decided not to go there.
In the gym last Friday night, the teachers all sat scrunched together in a tight section of basketball bleachers, those with a kid graduating getting the front row. As usual, a few of us felt silly, decked out in our flamboyant academic regalia, with our flat, pointy caps. I had to cheat off my neighbor to remember which edge to dangle my tassel over.
Chloe graduated that night, where she delivered a powerful valedictory speech. As her father, I sat transfixed in the bleachers, stunned by the vision of this beautiful, insightful adult, and wondering what she did with my little girl.
As the ceremony crept on, my eyes watered now and then, but I chased the tears away, instead deciding to feel the moments, and appreciate the bright future ahead. Thankfully, these days I’m learning that I can literally decide how to see things, how to react, even how to feel.
As a teacher, in one of those remarkable life moments you can't really describe, I got to present Chloe's diploma. Precious, fleeting instants like these, you can't keep them. You can’t grip them too tightly. You can only feel them deeply, before they vanish.
Yesterday we hosted Chloe’s graduation party, after months of planning and honey-do chores. The experts on my device naturally predicted rain for Sunday, but somehow during our special four-hour window, we were blessed with sunshine and comfortable temperatures. People came in waves — kids, adults, and in-betweens. Some settled in for the long haul, munching chips and chunky fresh salsa, passing volleyballs, or staking out a comfortable spot. Others with busy lives and plenty of day-off options still made brief appearances to pay respects.
Of course, family dotted the grounds. Nephews surprised from Oregon and Montana. My wife's mother and sister rolled in from southwest Washington, offering love and support and elbow grease. My son and his beautiful girlfriend — who haunts our family these days with her playful disruption — made it. Chloe's mother and my wife, Jeri, planned everything and presided gracefully over the day.
Many friends attended, some of them new, some old, some best. Chloe’s pals from our school and elsewhere trickled in. Family friends came, and we each attracted our own personal amigos to our Mexican-themed, taco fiesta. As expected, the wrestling folks materialized. Managers and wrestlers and parents, current and from the past, checked in. Less expected, an opposing coach, my fiercest rival and loyal friend, showed up. Following the coach came an old, bald referee, escorting his lovely wife — the living embodiment of “better half.”
Among this diverse mix of people, many unfamiliar with one another, a happy chorus of babies and toddlers and puppies emerged, cooing and squealing and yipping. Our yard soon filled with a delightful mix of people and pets, replacing the expected rain with a shower of kindness and love, allowing me — famously socially awkward — to not only survive the party, but to love it.
Today, this last Monday of the school year, Mother Nature is up to her old tricks, conjuring dark clouds and cool June temperatures, dealing the kind of day that invites melancholy. I roll slowly down our long country driveway, focused on the movement of the orange balloons attached to our entry gate, the last remnants of Chloe’s party.
Like the balloons, my emotions are unsteady as I stop near the entrance. From up close, I watch the balloons dance weakly in the breeze, exhausted from their work of announcing the party, and dissipating helium. I pause for an extended moment to gaze at these final remains of Chloe’s high school experience. Getting to work on time becomes unimportant. I step out of my truck, and snap a photo.
I’ve shared my own children with my school district for twenty years. Chloe, my last wrestling manager, is also my last child to graduate. There is something magical about experiencing school with your own children. Their friends, other people’s kids, become your kids. Girls seek you out to share the latest gossip or lay out the day’s drama. A boy asks for your help in navigating a tough class; another begs you to broker a date with his crush. Your nervous freshman son pops in to spend lunch with you because school is a jungle, and he has nowhere else to hide.
When things go badly in your work, there is always someone — your own children — to comfort and inspire you, and to love you, no matter what. Not many professions offer that in the benefit package. I regret now all of the times I was too busy, too stressed, or too annoyed to enjoy every second of these past twenty years with my kids. But still, I’m grateful for all the special moments I was blessed to share with them. When I consider how most people live most of their lives away from their children during the school years, I understand that sharing my work life with my own might be the single best perk of this career.
Precious, fleeting instants like these, you can't keep them. You can’t grip them too tightly. You can only feel them deeply, before they vanish.
I’m an emotional guy, increasingly so as I age. If ever there was an opportunity to get sappy, now is the time. I’ve retired from a long coaching career, and my kids are all finished with public school. I’m facing the two biggest transitions of my life — leaving the sport I've loved for a lifetime, while the last of those I love the most is leaving me. These transitions could naturally dictate a slowing down, an uneventful and sorry descent toward the end of my life. I could let the sap flow, and cry my way through it. I could give up and get old, letting age and circumstances overcome me.
Or, I could choose another way.
I refuse to be put out to pasture. At my desk before school, it hits me that the seniors are finished now. It hits me that today is the first day in twenty years of work without my kids. I sit still, take a deep breath, and it hits me that today marks either an end, or a beginning. After taking all these hits, I boldly proclaim, out loud with no one to hear, "Today is a beginning."
I begin by appreciating the past. Today, I choose to be grateful for all of the time I’ve shared with my children. Today, I decide to reflect on the thousands of special moments and people gracing my career as a coach. Today, I choose to be more excited than ever about this moment, and those still to come.
After school, I head for home. I turn on the radio just as Tim McGraw gently launches into "My Little Girl." The DJ of the universe has a way with these things. I think, uh-oh, as Tim reaches the chorus:
You're beautiful baby from the outside in.
Chase your dreams but always know the road that'll lead you home again.
Go on, take on this whole world.
But to me you know you'll always be my little girl.
Tears well up. I pull over, and soon, embarrassingly, I’m sobbing and grinning at the same time. Despite my bold assertions about appreciating the past and embracing the future, and deciding how I'm going to feel, yes, I’ve gone there. For just a moment, it hurts.
Craig Foster has worked as a teacher in public education for over thirty years. Along with teaching, he coached wrestling for three decades at both the high school and college levels and was selected as a distinguished member of the Washington State Wrestling Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2014.
Craig is also a freelance writer who enjoys crafting personal essays — sometimes humorous, sometimes poignant — about small universal slices of life. Multiple newspapers, magazines and blogs have featured his stories.
His daughter, Chloe, is now a freshman at Western Washington University. Visit Craig's blog to enjoy more of his writing.