Every weekday afternoon, I stand at my classroom door and say goodbye to each individual student.
“Farewell, young man.”
“Adios, my friend.”
“Enjoy your evening, dear scholar.”
I offer side hugs to the huggers and high fives to the rest.
I often throw in “I’m proud of you” or “Love you!”
This habit began because I’ve learned the hard way that we never know which goodbye is final.
In my first year of teaching, we returned from spring break to an empty desk in my homeroom. There was a custody issue that resulted in a student moving across the country with no notice.
I worried about him the rest of the year.
How would our curriculum align with his new one? Did I teach him well enough to help him transition? Was he making friends at his new school? Did I tell him often enough that I was proud of his efforts?
What troubled me most: How did I say goodbye to him that Friday, when everyone was watching the clock and eager to leap out the door and into the sunshine?
I’m certain it was uneventful – forgettable, even. My habit was to wave to students as they walked away and I shuffled on to carpool duty. I’d throw out an all-purpose, “Goodbye!” or “Study for your states quiz!”
That missing student changed my ways. The next year and each year since, I’ve stood sentry at the door, insisting that students line up and walk out the door one at a time.
I’ve tried to change my ways at home, too, though I’m not always successful.
By the time I’ve showered, dressed, dried my hair, made breakfast and packed lunches, I have about 2.5 seconds to bid farewell to my two children. I manage to cram in some version of “Have a good day! Make good choices! Be safe! I love you!” as I dash into the garage, balancing a piece of toast atop a to-go cup of coffee in one hand, purse, lunch bag and keys in the other.
We often miss hugs and thoughtful exchanges.
I’m thankful each evening when we’re all reunited.
When I think about the people I’ve loved and lost over the years, I think of our final time together.
My grandpa had been ill, and we suspected his time was limited. When I said goodbye for what would be the final time, my heart knew.
When my grandmother fell ill about three years later, I said goodbye, but I don’t know if she understood. Alzheimer’s disease had long before stolen her memory. When was the last time that I said goodbye to her and she knew who I was? I can’t pinpoint it.
My mom had been bed-ridden for years, and every time I visited her nursing home, I braced myself, preparing for what might be our last conversation. She and I made an effort to make each goodbye meaningful.
When my husband’s time was near, we both knew. He suddenly could no longer speak, so my sister scribbled the alphabet, and he pointed:
“I love you. Thank you.”
Not long after, his body fell into a sleep-like state. Twelve hours later, he took his final breath.
We’re not always so fortunate. We can’t predict the future. We don’t know how much time will pass until we meet again – if at all. I plan to keep working on making all of my hellos and goodbyes and the moments in between meaningful. Every moment counts.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.