Last week, I attended the Class of 2013 graduation at my old high school, the Cobble Hill School of American Studies in Brooklyn, New York. It was the last graduation of students I had taught during my ten years at Cobble. I taught these students in 9th grade, for three long and hot weeks when I was heavily pregnant with Nico in September and from January until June after returning from maternity leave. This was the only time I taught 9th grade, and let me tell you that teaching 9th grade is very, very different from teaching 11th or 12th grade (the grades I taught the majority of my high school career). Hats off to those of you who are career 9th grade experts.
These graduates, when 9th graders, were different from upperclassmen in that they were so open in their desperate attempts to figure out sex, life, love, family, death, and everything around them. They asked me the craziest questions out of nowhere. One day, mid-lesson, a student raised her hand and asked, “Miss…when you have an orgasm, do you pee all over yourself?” I blogged about that here years ago and another sex question/clarification from the students here. There was something about teaching those 9th graders. . .they seemed so young still and therefore their problems ate at me, as noted in another blog post here from that spring of 2010. I had so many 9th graders with dead parents, dead moms specifically, and since I taught them while being pregnant and a new mom this just broke me. One day, on Nico’s due date, I erupted in hysterical sobs about a girl’s dead mom IN CLASS, which I blogged about here. And this class, one student in particular, taught me about the politics of gang life and being from a family of gang members, which I blogged about here and here. And it was for a student in this class that I went to my first student funeral, the funeral of a sweet young boy named Deandre, whom I taught for the three weeks before I gave birth to Nico but who was no longer at Cobble after I returned. He was the brother of one of my 9th grade girls that year.
I had seen many of these students at a college fair this past February when I went to Cobble Hill as a representative of my new community college job. I promised them I would be at graduation, but honestly, I did not want to go. My daughter’s 6th birthday was the next day, I had to bring brownies to her school at 2pm, make a cake, wrap all her presents, prepare for her party the next day, prepare for her kindergarten moving up ceremony which happened to be on her birthday, too–ahhhhh!
But I thought, I don’t want to be one of those adults in their lives that says I’ll show up and then doesn’t. Those adults suck. We all know that.
So I dressed up, dropped off my kids, and went to my old high school. As soon as I walked in the principal greeted me with a scowl and a, “Do you have a ticket for graduation? We might not have room for you.” (She is one large reasons why I left that school.) Kindly, and with a fake smile, I told her that I had no ticket, but that I could stand easily, and I just wanted to see the students and not necessarily the whole ceremony. As she shot me the stink eye, two girls ran over and screamed, “Ms. Ungemah! You came!” One of these girls was the student whose brother’s funeral I attended (and, I might add, I was the ONLY person from our school there. Disappointing.). I took their picture. I then went into the cafeteria and visited with all the kids I once taught as they waited. They are all so grown up now, so ready to take on life’s next chapter that you could see the anticipation, fear, joy, and pride glowing like an aura of everything from the past 18 years of life around them. I got weepy (I always do), and took photos. They were my last high school students, and they were graduating.
Of course, there was some sadness, too. Some kids weren’t there. The gang kid was not there; I loved that kid. Two kids who had dead moms weren’t there. I couldn’t help but notice that those missing were all young men, and at my school that would equal young men of color. I hate seeing statistics proven right. These kids weren’t statistics to me, but people.
I found a seat in the last row near the exit so I could leave if I wanted. I stayed for most of the ceremony, then I snuck out the exit and quietly left the building without seeking out my old teacher friends, my old bosses whom I liked, or my old students. I felt a chapter of my life concluding, and it was surprisingly sadder than I expected. I had graduated, too.