As new school year begins, so does a new odyssey

As my former students leave for college, I am beginning an odyssey of my own – full of exciting challenges.
As my former students leave for college, I am beginning an odyssey of my own – full of exciting challenges. AP

They waited an hour to say goodbye – Lexi and Gabby, two of my students who graduated in June and are heading this weekend to their freshman year at Clemson University. They wanted one last look around the high school where they spent four years learning the things they will need for college and beyond – calculus and essay writing but more important skills, too, such as sportsmanship and listening and gratitude.

I was in a meeting when they stopped by. School for me started earlier this week, my fellow teachers and I clutching Styrofoam mugs of coffee with one hand, hiding yawns with the other. As I tried to learn the names of the new staff members and listened to the administrators summarize last year and lay out plans for the new, I thought longingly about my bed at home.

The week before students come back always feels off-kilter, the hallways eerie and empty and almost ghostlike. My brain, shaped by the ancient technologies of books and television, does loop-de-loops every August when I turn on the smart board or muddle through the instructions for some new, improved, glitzy-glitchy computer software.

Lexi and Gabby dropping in was a respite from all that. They hugged and laughed and reminisced about their senior year. Both girls are bright and were lucky to be in a small English class organized as a Socratic discussion. Every day we circled our desks and talked in depth about their homework – literature that does what good literature does, offering insights into what it means to be human.

Like many colleges, Clemson recognizes the importance of literature and assigns a summer book to incoming freshmen. I have no idea how many of them actually read it, but Gabby and Lexi are going to school ready to participate in a meaningful way in the Freshman Seminar. They polished off “One Amazing Thing” by Chitra Divakaruni in two days.

“It was only two hundred pages,” Gabby said, waving her hand in dismissal.

Before they left, the girls wanted to reread the first essays they wrote for me about the summer book I require for rising seniors, Homer’s “The Odyssey.” Digging through several boxes of their filed papers, they pulled their essays out, laughing at how slender their answers were. Only two pages? Outrageous! Simple plot summary instead of analysis? What were they thinking! Didn’t answer the specific prompt? They shook their heads and grinned with hard-won wisdom.

“You were generous to give me a 70!” Gabby grinned.

I remember how distressed she was by that 70 a year ago, how startled she was to stumble right out of the gate.

But I also remember how she doubled down and worked harder, asking for help, redoing her essays, learning from criticism and growing into a critical thinker. I feel confident that all that work prepared Gabby and Lexi and their classmates for life after high school.

“Some of my friends wish they could go back and live high school over again,” Lexi said. “Not me. I’m ready for a new adventure.” Gabby agreed.

Not a criticism of high school as much as a validation of it – how it has given them the optimism and confidence to move forward.

“You’re ready for your next odyssey,” I said.

The rest of the afternoon I thought about the odyssey ahead of me, too, each school year a journey with new students as fellow travelers. That’s what makes teaching exciting, the changing horizon offering up different challenges every day.

Kay McSpadden teaches high school English in York, S.C. Email: