A Degree of Seperation

What I want is for the two of us to meet somewhere by chance one day, like, passing on the street, or getting on the same bus.

– Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

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On June 20th, 1998 I walked across the stage in Yarmouth High School’s gymnasium to get my high school diploma. Twenty years later I was on the commencement stage again for Hillsboro’s graduation.

Returning to Nashville was everything I hoped it would be. I spent my time seeing former students and families and friends. I ate at all my favorite local eateries, and most of all, I could see the city and country that I’ve called home in a new light. I landed in Atlanta on a Friday morning and was immediately witness to a line of frustrated customers and apathetic employees at a Dunkin’ Donuts. People being bothered by the presence of people. Annoyance. Irritation. Anger. When I arrived at the gate for my Nashville flight, I saw it again. Bitterness at our flight being delayed nine minutes because our flight crew was late getting in. As I sat down in my seat for the last leg of my journey, I half laughed. Is this really how I used to go through life? The last twelve weeks I had grown to appreciate the difference between problems and inconviences. Landing back in America I could see it now, and I was a different person because of it. Right?

By mid-morning I was parking at Hillsboro High School. The memory of the double-takes and smiles when I first walked through the door warms my heart. It was the last academic day of the school year and both the teachers and the students were relaxed and happy about their impending freedom. I didn’t head for my old classroom right away. I felt like room 213 wasn’t mine anymore, and I was scared that seeing someone else teaching in there would be like seeing an ex laughing with someone new. You expect it, but you can’t erase that feeling. I wanted to keep my memory of that place, not to make new memories. Geography can be funny in that it can hold on to the echo of the sounds and smells and light, and I guess I wasn’t ready to walk back into that yet. So I settled in the IB History teacher’s room and more than gladly accepted the hugs and the high fives and genuine smiles from students and teachers alike. We told stories and laughed and reminisced. It was a true homecoming and a feeling that would be extended through the ten days at graduation parties, dinners, the state track meet, long runs, and happy hours. I’m warmed on this cold winter morning just thinking about the joy of it all.

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That first night I attended a graduation celebration for Addy, a former student and one of the managers for the XC team. I was exhausted after 8,000 miles of travel and nearly 40 hours awake, but seeing familiar and friendly faces energizes and enlivens. I was both inwardly and outwardly happy when my head finally hit the pillow for a solid night’s sleep.

The next morning I had a few hours to polish my commencement address before the second and third graduation parties started. Frothy Monkey on 12th Ave South has long been by go-to study and writing home. I sped from East Nashville where I was staying with a fellow teacher to the popular coffee shop hoping to beat the crowds. Driving again in the US was an easy enough adjustment, although I did try to get into the car on the wrong side several times. Another habit I carried with me from Pretoria was the constant vigilance at intersections. Car hijacking on a Saturday morning in May in Green Hills or 12th South is highly unlikely, but I couldn’t ignore the road intelligence that I’ve worked hard to develop. Drivers in South Africa are bad, but they are making me better at being vigilant and anticipating other people’s dangerous habits. At Frothy Monkey I over ordered on the food and coffee enjoyed every sweet bite while I searched for the right words.

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As for the speech itself, I worked on it for three weeks. It was difficult to narrow to a specific topic and then to narrow the topic to the five minutes allotted. After a dozen practice runs, I was still hitting roughly seven and a half minutes. I didn’t know if the jokes would go over, and I felt a bit like a fraud. What gave me any credibility? I was an unemployed English teacher who left the luxuries and modernity of America for a developing country. The only thing I was certain of was my uncertainty. I had asked for this opportunity, but I think what I really wanted was to teach my class again. I wanted to talk with my students, not to formally address 2500 people, most of whom didn’t know me or why I was on the program. This is one of those “be careful what you wish for” lessons that I still need to learn.

In the preparation, I had watched at least a dozen other speeches and stole what wisdom I could from my favorite writers and texts. In the end the final presentation was just over eight minutes. I hoped the administration would forgive me if it felt long-winded. Another week and I might have been able to say more with less. As it was, I’m mostly proud of the product and how it was received. I wish I had been more expressive in the delivery, but I felt the need to rush through to make up for the length. In the writing and sharing, I did feel a sense of closure that I didn’t know that I had needed. Leaving mid-year was right for my family, but as a professional, it left a huge hole in my heart. I was grateful for the opportunity to come back and to see everyone together again. It was a great privilege to see these students head out into the world. You can find a video of the speech recorded by Hillsboro librarian (and jack-of-all-trades) Joyce Claassen on YouTube.

As I’ve said before, this group of students was very special. As their teacher in 7th grade and 9th grade, their 10th grade AP and 11th grade IB English and Theory of Knowledge, and 12th grade capstone, we’ve been around the block a few times. I will forever be an advocate for looping. In fact if I head back to the classroom, that might be a condition for my employment. For five years we shared our laughter and tears and wins and losses and accomplishments and disappointments.

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Forty 2017 Hillsboro XC runners enjoying another perfect October morning.
Our field trip to Shakespeare’s Folio at the Parthenon in 2016.
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Ireland in 2017.

I watched them grow out of athletic socks and baggy cargo shorts and braces and awkwardness into confident, knowledgable, and capable human beings. We traveled to Greece and Turkey and Ireland and the UK together. We ran countless miles together. They threw me a baby shower for my first born and made meals for my family when my second born was in the NICU. They babysat my kids and kept me working hard even in the face of the most absurd conditions. Today, thousands of miles apart, I still feel that we are a community. The love and passion I brought to the class was a direct reflection of the love and passion they shared with me. They made me a much better teacher and parent and friend. Everyone was appreciative that I made the long trip home for graduation, but really I was the one who was grateful.

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While cash might have been more useful as a graduation gift, I am still an unemployed teacher (until I can sell some books anyway). Instead, I hand picked paintings and jewelry and accessories from South African artisans at our local market. In buying almost forty paintings by Gab Duru, I hope that not only am I showing the students and families how much I admire them and appreciate the positive impact they’ve had on my life, but that we are also helping to make a difference in the life on an artist. If you would like a piece of Mr. Duru’s art, please feel free to reach out to me and I will make sure it gets back to you in America.

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That week in May I attended ten more graduation parties. The warm feelings continued and as my schedule filled with coffee dates and whiffle ball and last runs in Percy Warner, I tried to fit more and more in. Without noticing the effect it was having on me, I started overbooking my limited time. Everyone’s request was a priority. I would show up late apologizing only to have to leave early or risk being late to meeting with the next friend or student. Luxury problems. I failed to deliver all the graduation cards and gifts. Regrettably, I had to miss one graduation party altogether. Over the week I would cut out time for meals and honk at traffic and drive like a South African taxi and try to make everything go faster. I had transformed back into the impatient American who always felt behind the clock. It was amazing. In this environment, my former self and habits re-emerged. Even now, three weeks removed I still feel a hint of disappointment that I couldn’t achieve all that I wanted in my ten days. At the end of this amazing adventure in a few years’ time, I wonder if I will be able to hold on to the South African pace of life and peace of mind that I’ve found here. Is it me or is it the American environment which drives people to hustle and rush and be impatient in the name of getting just one more thing done?

I’m happy to be back in South Africa, but I miss those people left behind. I wish there was more time for laughter and stories and sharing meals. Call it whatever you want: Fellowship, Community, Family. It is what we all seek. As my youngest son says, “It fills my bucket.”

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So what is next for the class of 2018? We are all awaiting news of their IB scores and results in July. Most are headed off on new adventures next fall. Some are headed to their first choice of universities with scholarships in hand. My heart is with those who are more disappointed by how their senior year concluded. Navigating the world of financial aid and college acceptance requirements is difficult and often disappointing for all involved. We like to tell ourselves that anything is possible, but the reality isn’t always true. Or rather, that what’s possible isn’t always an easy or straightforward path. Regardless of the individual situations, I have the utmost faith in all of the students who walked across the stage on May 23rd. They are good human beings. I know they can change their world because they have already changed mine. I’m planning a trip to Kilimonjaro next year, and I hope some of the students and families will be able to make it. Like all of our adventures, it will be open invitation. This isn’t the end. We still have mountains to climb.

Be good and keep in touch.

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