No more will be added to THIS.
On Monday, a hot wind blows through the sandy fields, and I have my last class with 12A. Only half of the class shows up. I am disappointed and a bit angry about the low turn-out. All my grandiose speeches disintegrate. I look at the notes jotted down on my paper, of what I had wanted to say, and I realize it was all in vain. It’s like when you’re planning to have an argument with someone, and you plan out exactly what to say and how to say it and you imagine the whole scene, with yourself victorious in the end. But when the time comes to have the argument, some little thing has changed and you are disarmed by the actual presence of the person you had spoken to a thousand times in your mind. So it is with 12A. It suddenly seems silly to say everything I wanted to, so I just give them advice for their upcoming exams, give them my address, and give a small speech wishing them good luck in their future. But even this chokes me up a bit. It’s fitting, in a way, that I bumble through this last session with 12A. They were always my difficult class, they could suck the life out of me when I had them first period and I would work all day to regain the enthusiasm that they had consumed without even a smile.
I come home from class on Monday disgruntled and fidgety. It hadn’t been the ending I’d wanted–the low attendance clearly showed that most of them didn’t care too much that it was the last day I would stand before them as their teacher. But then I remember back to when I was in grade 8. It was my first year of Spanish, with Ms. Bailes. She was large, hairy, and an exacting teacher. Every tilde and accent mark had to be in its place, every word spelled correctly. She was hard, everyone hated her, but I thrived under her. At the end-of-year awards ceremony, she gave me and another girl awards. At the ceremony, she hugged each of us, spoke with emotion, and had tears in her eyes. I didn’t understand then, I thought it was weird for a teacher to be emotional about students, I might have even laughed about it a little afterwards. But just now, I feel the same way as she did and I understand it. We justified Ms. Bailes’ existence. We made her a teacher. But to us, she was just our Spanish teacher. We couldn’t understand.
I think parenting must be just like this. You love too much and the kids just accept it-accept that you’re working for them, doing everything for them, hoping so much for them. And then they just leave, and the room is empty and you’ve got a space inside, but they’re going on to other things, just glad to be finished with school and on to the next phase of life.
On Tuesday, I say goodbye to 12B and our black hen dies. When we come home from school, we find her belly up, under our front flower bushes, with a few smaller chicks perching precariously on a stem just above the dead chicken. Her baby chicks, whom she had driven away when she started laying more eggs, were playing on the branches above her, oblivious to the death.
My farewell speech with 12B goes better. 12B is my favorite class and almost everyone shows up. I start with a few matters of business, collecting papers and books. I give them some final advice for the two English exams they will write on October 12. Then I tell a story. I had read it a long time ago, in grade 11 or 12, probably given to my by one of my English teachers. It’s about a young man who dreams of changing the world. As he gets older and older he is unsuccessful in changing the world and keeps lowering his sights, first to change his country then his town and finally he settles for just changing his family, which also proves immovable. Finally, he’s on his deathbed and realizes he could have and should have changed himself first. Then through his example, leadership, and encouragement, he might have changed his family, which would improve his town, which would set an example to other towns and eventually change the country. “And who knows,” I conclude, “he might have even changed the world.” The class responds with “Mmmms” to indicate they are satisfied with the ending, but a little disappointed that it wasn’t a funny story.
Then, I tell them what I hope they’ve learned over the past two years. I keep it simple. Referring to Things Fall Apart, I say, “I hope you learned about the importance of culture, both the positive and negative aspects of it. You all were born before Independence, but you grew up after it. Your country is changing and if you don’t preserve your culture, it will be lost. So you have to think about what is good about your culture. What do you want to save and preserve for future generations? Which parts of your culture can you let go? In life you have choices. You can be like Okonkwo and fully embrace your culture, even when it goes against what you really feel. Or you can be like Nwoye, and just leave everything to join the new religion. Or you can be like Obierika or Ikemefuna and think about things. You can pick and choose what you want to keep and what you want to leave.
“From Master Harold and the Boys, I hope you learned what Sam was trying to tell Hally, that you have free will. In your life, you will find yourself in situations or part of something that might not be good. For Hally, his bench was apartheid, it said “whites only” and he sat on it because that was what he was supposed to do, what his society told him was right. You will all have different benches in your life. But just remember what Sam said, ‘You can leave it any time you choose.’ If you believe you have free will, and you think about the choices you make, I believe you will be successful in life. It won’t be easy and it will take courage, but you have free will, and it is possible.
“Furthermore, in English class this year, you have all developed critical thinking skills. That means that you are able to question what you read and what people tell you. You know how when you write, I always say you must give examples and reasons to support your point? In life, it is the same way. There are a lot of people-politicians, salespeople, even your friends-who will try to trick you, who will tell you things that don’t make sense. So always ask yourself, ‘Did this person support their statement with reasons?’ Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Always question things and ask yourself if it makes sense.
“Finally, read. I know books are hard to find in Namibia, but they’re there. Look for them and read them. Read magazines and the newspaper. Continue to improve your mind and gain knowledge. I believe that you are all intelligent and talented people who can make good choices for yourself, your family, your town, your country and who knows? Maybe even the world.”
Throughout this speech, nobody moved, no papers shuffled, no feet scraped the floor. As I talked, I was choked with emotion, and my voice would break. Tears would well up in my eyes, I would fend them off the best I could. John buried his head in his arms during most of my talk-lest he be seen crying. Miina ran out of the room at the end. What I was saying was not really new, but it was final and their solemnity shows they understood. This was it. Mrs. Arcaro’s last lesson.
When the bell rings, I can’t watch them file out, can’t watch them go for the final time, leaving their seats and desks vacant. I go into my store room and burst into tears. A Reader’s Digest on my lending shelf mocks me: NEED A LAUGH? the cover asks in big blue and red letters.
Later that day, I am supervising the computer lab for 12B. I watch the learners, as they cruise websites and type emails. They look different. I felt like someone watching an ex-lover. You know them so well and yet they seem like a stranger simply because they are not yours anymore. You have no right to them any longer. That is how I look at my learners, who are not my learners anymore, who will learn nothing more from me.
On Wednesday, I bid farewell to 12C, my final class. I give them the same speech I gave to 12B, but I do what I always told them not to do during a speech-I look out the door, out the window, at the floor, at the chalkboard, everywhere but at my audience. I’m afraid of a complete meltdown before I finish saying what I need to say. But I steal peeks at them. Aletta is unbraiding her hair, her head cocked sideways. Kornelia alternates between staring straight at me, eyes wide open, and burying her face in the crook of her arm. Tomas has his normal smile that is always on the verge of a smile, with little nods to show me he’s listening carefully. Nelson sits up straight, occasionally jotting down notes, even now, even in my last lesson that he will never write a test on. Mike sits defiantly-slouched in his chair, legs sprawled out in front of him, eyelids half open, looking angry. Freddy stands in the corner, leaning his head on the edge of the window, looking both bored and amused, no doubt memorizing everything I say, searching for contradictions, so that we can have a nice argument about some miniscule point later on. Sandra sits sideways, facing the chalkboard and not me, and appears to be trying to assume the fetal position while sitting in her chair. Selma sits relaxed against the wall, at the giant desk cluttered with learners’ books.
Despite my best efforts, I get choked up. Mike says, “Oh, shit,” and I can see the water in his eyes as well. What I feel now is just how I felt after my last big swim meet in high school. After each race, the feeling grew, until after the last one, it overwhelmed me and I cried until my goggles filled up as I swam in the warm-down lanes. I knew it was time for it to be over, I didn’t want it to go on forever, but still I cried and cried. I knew a momentous part of my life was ending, something I couldn’t come back to. Sure, I would swim again, I would even race again, but not in this way, this moment would never come again. A door was closed. A part of my life was finished.
This love of swimming and love of Namibia were not merely because of their fun. It’s what you give to it, the sacrifices you make, the frustration you suffer that is proportional to your love. The intoxicating buzz when you succeed is the rare reward and the dull throb of failure the constant reminder. You love it in a way that it can’t and doesn’t love you back, and when it’s time, it ends. The anguish seals it. It’s a way of accepting that no more will be added to this.
Ironically, when my life of swimming really did end, it was in the Mansfield orthopedics’ office in February. When my doctor told me I should never swim again, I didn’t even care. All I asked was, “When can I go back to Namibia?”
The end, for me, is today. The next two months in Namibia are just an epilogue, a gradual detachment. The grade 12s will be here until early November, writing their final exams. I will teach grade 11 English for the next month, to help out the other teacher, until exams start. I’ll teach again in the States and innumerable teenagers will sit before me and learn about themes and symbolism and topic sentences. But no more will be added to this.
When I finish my speech to 12C, there are still a few minutes left before the bell. It is that awkward feeling, like after you’ve already said all your goodbyes and then you see the person again. So I venture, “Uh, do any of you want to say something? That’s all I really have to say.”
Mike says, softly, “We’ll miss you, Miss.” Kornelia is bent over her desk, visibly sobbing. Sandra has disappeared behind her arms. Tomas, who rarely talks in class, says, very formally, “Thank you for what you have said to us.”
And that summed it up, really.