I had just loaded the last of the boxes into my car when I heard someone call my name from somewhere across the hot parking lot. I turned into the sun to see who it was. Shading my eyes and squinting, I saw a young man—too young to be a co-worker, too old to be a student—walking toward me. It was 3:05 on the last day of school. I knew he could only be a former student back for a visit. I cursed his timing and my luck.
Suddenly, Jack Nicholson and the character he plays in the movie Terms of Endearment popped into my mind. The man is boarding an airplane when a woman he has a stormy relationship with catches up with him. “Wait,” the woman (played by Shirley MacLaine) shouts. “I love you!” Nicholson stops, turns. The trademark eyebrows rise slowly over his Ray-Bans. Sighing, he drops his suitcase. In that unmistakable drawl, he says, “And to think, I almost made a clean get-away.” I sighed, too. A clean getaway was all I wanted.
I was looking forward to a whole year’s leave of absence, which I’d requested for “personal” reasons. In truth, I was burnt out, tired, and more than a little bitter. I wasn’t sure I would be returning—to the school or the profession. But when I recognized my visitor in the parking lot, I momentarily forgot my haste. Nicholas had been one of my students during my very first year of teaching. An eager and bright freshman, he sailed through college-bound English and switched to the honors track the following year. Although I wasn’t his teacher during his junior and senior years, we kept in close touch. He ended up valedictorian of his class and left me a moving and funny little tribute in my year-book. It had been several years since I’d last seen him.
“Nick! I can’t believe it.” I took both his hands and stepped back. “My God, you’re a grown-up.”
He grinned. “I’m a teacher now, too,” he said. “And, believe it or not, I’m so depressed today that I just had to come. I felt like I had a spiritual summons to see you.” He was still smiling, but I could sense the seriousness of his mood.
“I know,” I said. “It’s an emotionally charged day. I was just about to tear out of this place as you got here.” I pointed to the neat brick facade of the school. “It seems like a lifetime since you went there. So much has changed; I can’t tell you how happy I am to be leaving.”
While Nick listened patiently, I recounted my griefs: removed administrators, apathetic students, parents who expect teachers to do it all, the never-ending paperwork. It was a familiar litany, and I watched his face change as I talked. He looked puzzled and a little sad.
“Wait, Rose,” he said, stopping me in midsentence. “I’m not depressed for the reasons you think. I’m depressed be-cause I didn’t want the year to end. I loved every minute of it, and that’s what I came back to tell you.”
After several years of graduate work and waiting tables in a local restaurant, Nick had finally found his vocation—teaching 6th grade history and language arts in a private school. Because he was such a promising high school and college student, he had believed that his family, his friends, and even I expected him to become something more than “just a teacher.” He had struggled for a long time with the decision. But now his face was radiant as he described his lessons and his students. One boy who was moving had given him a note. “I wish you could follow me to South Carolina,” he had written.
“It’s wonderful, isn’t it, when a kid responds to you like that,” I said.
“Yes, it is,” he said. “And when I got that note, I thought to myself, `Did I ever say that to Rose? Did I ever tell her what it meant to me to have her as a teacher?’ So, that’s why I’m here today, to finally tell you.” He stopped for a moment and grinned.
“Sometimes, when I’m teaching, I hear your words coming out of my mouth,” he continued. “But even if I’d never become a teacher, you influenced me in so many ways.” Nick stood with his hands in his pockets, and, for a moment, he looked just like the quiet boy I had known such a long time ago.
“What can I say, Nick? You make me feel ashamed. I can’t even cry.” I reached up and hugged him quickly. “You know, maybe it was a ‘spiritual summons’ for you to come here, today of all days. Thank you.” We talked for a while after that, about our summer plans and other students from his class. I made him promise to stay in touch and watched him walk away. After he left, I was no longer in such a hurry. In fact, I found myself heading slowly back to the school.
My classroom was still unlocked, but it had been cleaned. My usual half-circle of desks had been moved back into neat rows by some conscientious janitor. The walls were empty of posters, and books were stacked all around. At that moment, my room was an unfamiliar and lonely place; it already belonged to someone else.
But, in my mind, I could hear the voices of the students who had been in it only hours ago. Within the walls, I could still feel their flashes of interest and their boredom, their pleasure and their disappointment, their anger and their tears. Tonight, they were graduating and beginning lives in which I would have no place. From experience, I knew that I would see very few of them again. To me, they were already ghosts.
For the second time that day, I thought of Jack Nicholson and the moment in the movie when he drops the suitcase. I suddenly knew what it meant to be stopped dead in your tracks by a simple declaration of love. I was in such a hurry to go that I had given no thought to what I was leaving behind. You’re right, Jack, I thought. There’s no such thing as a clean getaway.
A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1983 edition of Education Week as No Clean Getaway