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Signals Sent Back

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The students in my school are the most articulate and scholarly I've ever taught. When they go off to college, some send back...English papers!

My revelation came when I read one of them. Ginger's paper had sat on my desk for two weeks, shoved to the back by my current students' ungraded work. When I finally got around to it, I was immediately sorry that I'd left it so long. I unsuccessfully tried to maintain my composure as I read her beautifully written narrative of her departure for college, a farewell that took on heightened significance when her father died suddenly some weeks later. She told me she was writing it for her mother, to help sort out her own feelings, and she wanted my advice.

"Advice.'' Wading through my emotions, all I could think was: Our students all leave. And someday, we will, too. Even so, we all stay part of the same network of thoughts and emotions.

Ginger could write down an event that helped her understand her feelings, partly because of her former English teachers. And I could feel the pain through her words because, in part, students teach teachers to understand others' lives.

So as I watch them leave, I comfort myself with the thought that some will remember John Donne, and some will forget him. Some will write well and honestly, and some will write interoffice memos. Some will come back to visit, and some will send back papers; but most will not. Yet once in a while, teachers make a connection that reminds us of the continuity of the learning process. I like to remember a comment by one of my students on an end-of-semester evaluation form:

Thanks. When finally I've plowed my way through school, I will teach as my favorite teachers have taught.

When I remember this, I know that in teaching, you never say goodbye.
--Erica Jacobs

The author teaches English at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Va.

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