Reprinted with permission from The Insider.
My final stroll down the hallways of Berkley High School, a public school in suburban Detroit, was quite eerie — it felt like I was walking down a plank to the unknown. It was June, 2020, and I had made the decision to retire after 34 years as an English teacher, at the end of February, before Covid closed the schools and the country. The hallways were dimly lit and only a few teachers were allowed in the school at one time due to Covid restrictions. But I saw no one as I made my way to the main office.
I turned the handle of the door — it didn’t budge. It was dark inside and no one was home — no secretaries, no counselors, no administrators, and no students. I used my trusty key one last time. As I walked through the door, I felt like I was entering an alternate universe.
On the day that I should have been saying goodbye to the people I worked with, exchanging hugs and reminiscing, there was perfect and unexpected solitude. I proceeded to the front of the office and laid down my precious cargo — keys and an iPad. I left a note on a Post-it stating I would be back in the fall to visit. I looked around one last time and made my way back through the very doors I had opened thousands of times. It was not the good-bye I had envisioned for my last day.
Not only did Covid take away my desired exit from the teaching profession I loved so dearly, but it also took away the last time I would be at a graduation ceremony with my students. I never missed a graduation — they are magical. I was even robbed of telling my students, in person, of my intentions to retire — email had to suffice.
The entire situation seemed surreal. I felt as if this scenario was like the 1951 movie The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the film, an alien arrived on earth, warning humankind to live peacefully or be destroyed, as they were a threat to other planets. Like the movie, we were now in the eye of the storm — life as we knew it came to a screeching halt. We are not a peaceful planet, and this alien, the coronavirus, had us in its grip. We were being destroyed.
When in-person teaching was no longer permitted, virtual classes took over. The pandemic interrupted the entire educational process and innovation; teaching via Zoom was now center stage. I taught 18-year-old twelfth graders and, unfortunately, my students infrequently appeared in our virtual classroom. They were scared, confused, lonely and didn’t know how nor want to navigate this strange new world. Eventually they began to hand in assignments — but at strange times. I am a night owl, so I was grading papers at 1:00 am in the morning — sometimes even at 3:00 am.
The senior class had plans that were interrupted too. Childhood dreams of walking across the stage to receive their diplomas were dashed. The Senior Prom, taking pictures with friends, family, and teachers — eliminated. The Senior Walk down the hallways, strutting their superiority to underclassmen— gone. The All-Night Party after graduation, sponsored by parents and the school— cancelled.
I had plans for my retirement that went down the tubes as well due to the pandemic. After teaching at Berkley High School each morning, afternoons were spent at CASA (Center for Advanced Studies and the Arts). I had been there for 29 years and taught Detroit Film, along with other subjects throughout the years.
I thought I had everything figured out for my next teaching adventure, but Covid changed my well-laid plans. I planned to continue teaching part time, two hours a day, just enough time to satisfy my passion for the profession. I wasn’t willing to give up my career so quickly. But with declining enrollment rates and students wanting to stay home and learn virtually, my classes went up in smoke. Sadly, I was out of the game.
As for the senior class, new and inventive ideas took hold. Administrators and teachers worked tirelessly to create gratifying solutions to celebrate their achievements. It wasn’t what they imagined, but with super-hero strength — Mighty Mouse came to save the day. Our fearless leader, the principal, never missed a beat by sending emails of encouragement each week to the senior class as well as the entire student body— it was wonderful!
And then new plans were set in motion. In place of the Senior Walk, 12th graders (some accompanied by parents) drove slowly through designated areas in the various parking lots of the school to wave, talk and give air hugs to staff members who were standing six feet apart along the route. It was overwhelming to see all the students once again.
After this event, staff members recorded messages to their senior classes, and these were presented in style — virtually of course. I drafted a poem. Pictures were taken with caps and gowns and displayed on their day of graduation. Each student’s name was called then messages and emojis could be sent. Computers and phones were in close range to view the event. It was a special moment during an uncertain time.
There were even innovative ideas on the horizon for retiring staff members. Typically, we celebrate with a luncheon either in the school or a designated restaurant. Speeches are delivered, awards are presented and there is the continuing bond of friendship and respect in the air. On occasion, I would even think about what I was going to say to the staff on that coveted day. But my thoughts — gratitude for my career, student interactions, and relationships with my colleagues — were, once again, presented by email.
However, due to a nice turn of events, I was fortunate enough to attend a face-to-face gathering — six feet apart, sitting in lawn chairs — to celebrate my retirement with the very people with whom I was the closest: the English Department. My department chair organized a “sendoff” to celebrate the moment. I was now able to tell them, in person, how much our arduous work and dedication meant to the students. Our commitment to the teaching profession was unwavering. I was honored to be their colleague and cherished the many years we taught together.
As I reflect on those early days of the pandemic, I am proud of how educators persevered instead of crumbling. We didn’t let Covid conquer our desire to educate students during this rough time — and we provided memorable moments for the senior class as well. As for my retirement soirée, well, it was simply the best!
My Ode to 2020 Seniors
Congratulations, today is your day,
You’re off to great places
You’re off and away.
The school year started great,
All Seniors will attest
Football, Powder Puff, Homecoming,
Life was at its best.
What college to attend,
What do I do next?
Too many options before the end.
Soccer, Basketball, Hockey
Band Practice and plays,
So many fun activities
To fill each and every day.
Seeing friends in the hallway
Eating lunch at your favorite place,
No doubt, Seniors ruled the school
There was no immediate alarm to face.
Then boom! the doors closed
What a huge surprise.
No more mingling with friends,
It changed quickly, right before our eyes.
The path wasn’t easy
What a lesson to behold,
But you have your future,
And adventures yet to be told.
So go out in the world
And find your place,
Be that person you dreamed about
Do it with pride and grace.
Don’t forget where you came from
Berkley is your legacy,
You’ll always be a Berkley Bear
And that is plain to see.
Yes, things are different
And things are new,
But you have places to go,
And things to do.