In July, your father accompanied you to a Parents’ Night at the day camp your daughter and son were attending. Having traversed the sweeping greens of the playing fields, the four of you were crunching down a pebbled walkway toward the lake when another family, gazing silently at their shifting feet, passed you on their way back up to the main campus. Your father said with deliberate courtesy, “Hi, how are you?”, surprising the other father into a delayed but civil response. Once the family was out of earshot, your dad said that it astounds him how many people don’t say hello to one another. “I told you that story, right?” he said. “About the two girls in front of me, walking the lake in Wakefield. They were both on their cell phones, talking to different people. I don’t understand it.” You should have admitted that you, too are guilty of wanting to feel wanted all the time, and therefore check your laptop and phone for e-mails and texts at least three times per hour. But because your dad knows little about the technological world and doesn’t want to know any more, and because he still goes to the local diner downtown once a week to chat with the locals, you took his simple observation as a pretty decent argument, and agreed.
You grew up in a house where your parents expected salutations. Even if you were comatose with lack of sleep and an oncoming cold and the prospect of a torturous, quiz-packed day of school ahead (and you had long-since declared yourself a teenage girl packed with angst), your responsibility was to affirm the other person’s presence. To this day, when your mother comes to your house at 6:45 a.m. to pack the kids’ lunches and make sure they board the bus, she rings out an insistent “Hel-looo!” It’s not just a greeting. It’s an instruction, a call that insists a response. If no one answers, her next move is to seek out your children and demonstrate what it means to value the first interaction of the day with someone you care about…and not from the couch. Though you spent many hours of your adolescence rolling your eyes and hunkering down against your mother’s morning cheer, you find yourself carrying out her lesson almost daily, now. Whether you’re waiting quietly for your students to look up from their iPhones, waving to a colleague in the hallway, or traveling through every room at party to find the host and say goodbye, you try hard to make sure that you acknowledge others, on your way in and on your way out.
But the importance of proper salutations doesn’t apply only to bidding brief hellos and farewells in the small moments of each day. May of 2015 marked the close of your 15th year at the first and only teaching job you’d ever had. This place took you in when you were green out of grad school, still living at home, and staggering around drunk on teaching inexperience, mumbling the difference between gerunds and participles to yourself. Your colleagues listened to every detail of your wedding plans (Chicken Florentine, chair covers, party buses) for two years straight. Here, you learned how to negotiate with unreasonable parents without compromising your confidence or your lesson plans, because one of the veterans of your department taught you how to be proactive instead of reactive. Your principal granted you extra weeks of maternity leave twice, and told you to take your time when your daughter was hospitalized for a rampantly-growing congenital cyst. Your fellow teachers also took over your classes without hesitation. Your CFO blessed tuition reimbursement for every graduate course you took. You will be forever grateful for these gifts.
Here, you read, wrote, and studied during your free periods and in the silence of in-class essays through 85 graduate school credits to earn two master’s degrees, only to turn around to edify your freshmen and juniors with new expertise. Here, you choreographed six musicals, including one that required instructing 23 boys how to tap dance for the first time, then demanding from them a seven-minute show-stopping number in which they claimed, “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Here, you painstakingly responded to thousands of pages of student writing. You inspired apathetic boys to do the most reading they had “done since kindergarten.” You talked neurotic overachievers through painful brainstorming sessions. Gave out jumbo-sized chocolate bars to the winners of storytelling competitions. Led seniors on leadership retreats. Chaperoned dances. Made IEP accommodations. Empowered young people and all the while, continued to vigorously educate yourself in literature, curriculum design, and creative writing. Here, you grew up. And along the way, you dedicated the most talented, compassionate, well-polished, and vulnerable parts of yourself to this place, day after day.
You were a lip-biting, barrette-wearing 24-year-old when you stood in front of your first class of fuzzy-faced boys. By the spring of 2015, you had been dying the grays in your hair for 14 years, married for 12, and parenting for 9. You had watched unspeakable tragedies hit your husband’s family, and lost loved ones of your own. You had revived your aching affection for writing stories and your dream to publish a novel. People would expect your priorities and goals to change over 15 years, wouldn’t they? Shouldn’t other people’s priorities and goals change, too? Isn’t that healthy?
Maybe the way you left this place felt abrupt to some…though you could argue that the colleagues who had really been listening to you—to the dissatisfaction that plagued the spaces between your seemingly contented hellos and goodbyes—should not have been surprised. Maybe the sudden manner in which you dropped the news wasn’t ideal, but you could argue that employees who are seeking employment elsewhere refrain from broadcasting this information to their current employers before the new employer makes a hardcore offer. And maybe it would be plausible for someone to ask why you would want to leave such a comfortable gig, a place that gave you an extra-long holiday break, freedom to teach what you wanted, and unlimited snow days on the house. In the end, though, maybe the professional family that raised you from the moment you sprung from the womb of your teacher education program could have known you better.
When you sent your farewell e-mail to your department colleagues, the warmth of many of the responses delighted you. “I feel sure you will be rejuvenated,” your cubicle neighbor affirmed. “Rejoice, rejoice, rejoice! I am SO happy for you!” said your friend with whom you had shared your plans in confidence early on. “May this new job bring you back to the reason you wanted to teach in the first place,” came the wish from your mentor. The brief but genuine “Best of luck” from the administrator you had always respected for his dry humor and realism pleased you. You even received a handwritten note via snail mail from the History teacher with whom you shared your very first classroom, claiming that the school would now be “impoverished” by your leaving. These people, the ones who rushed to express their approval and support, did not surprise you. But some of the people who didn’t say goodbye at all did surprise you.
The head of the Technology Department would not be terminating your school e-mail account until mid-August. When messages continued to forward to your personal Gmail through the last weeks of summer, you wondered whether the Tech Department had forgotten about you, and whether you would still be tied to your old job as your new one began. You were ignoring most of the e-mails: surveys on mission effectiveness, updates on initiatives, schedules for opening faculty meetings and blessings for a prosperous and soul-searching autumn. And then an invitation to an English Department dinner at the usual place, one last stress-free gathering, a start-of-the-school-year celebration, a chance to catch up over beers and fried pickles, appeared in your inbox. You thought, Oh, yes, it would be a nice idea to see everyone one more time! and How generous! They are still including me on the department list! And then, the realization spread from the depths of your gut up into your lungs and heart, a sensation like the leaking of a poisonous ink. They haven’t really noticed that I’m still on the list. They’re not talking to me.
The e-mail chain deliberately suggested inviting the new English Department faculty members to the occasion. What a perfect way to welcome them to the team. You didn’t expect to feel the intensity of hurt that you did in watching those e-mails fly back and forth with a fresh enthusiasm that had nothing to do with you. Perhaps if you didn’t know that the department often invited former members to these dinners for happy reunions—beloved retirees and one particularly revered teacher who, much like you, left the school for a public system in order to earn a more realistic salary, but much unlike you, had taught for four years here instead of fifteen—the injury wouldn’t have throbbed so furiously in your heart. You almost wish you hadn’t ended your farewell e-mail with an appeal to join everyone for drinks once in a while…if they’d have you.
If you had announced your departure from the school before the year ended, you would have been treated to a Bon Voyage speech, a round of thunderous applause, and an engraved silver platter. But your circumstances determined that you would be slipping away under the cover of summer, once the teachers had closed their gradebooks and scheduled their flights to San Francisco or Spain—once they had returned to their other lives. Therefore, you missed out on the public ceremony. You understood, and still understand, these terms. You haven’t been deluding yourself into thinking that you and your career change deserved a pep rally. Your best friend, with whom you had worked at the school for 12 years, coached and cheered you on throughout the entire decision-making process, and took you out for margaritas and marshmallow sundaes at J.P. Licks once you chose the right path. When it came to affirmation, hers and your family’s were all you needed.
And yet…maybe it wasn’t all about need. After all, people function perfectly well without hellos and goodbyes. Parents whose children meet at day camp, spending endless hours together playing Four Square and tennis and bonding under the duress of swim-a-thons and obstacle courses, aren’t required to exchange contact info or eye contact. Friends who walk the same lakeside trail might share the goals of muscle toning and increased endurance, but they certainly don’t have to endure each other’s idle chatter while pursuing those goals. So maybe hellos and goodbyes are more about acknowledging that another person’s presence has mattered to you…and about wanting to know whether your presence has mattered, too.
A few days after the e-mail thread about the English Department’s Last Supper of Summer had begun, you received a message addressed specifically to you, from the department chair. In the message, he told you that you would be missed. (You couldn’t help but catch the use of passive voice, there: Exactly who would be missing you?) He also told you which former colleague of yours would be taking over your desk in the new office, as you had trumped that colleague in seniority when selecting prime spots the spring before but now he was moving up in the ranks. And finally, the department chair mentioned that the Facilities Director was hounding him because you had neglected to turn in your classroom key…so if you wouldn’t mind returning it…
You know that any seemingly insensitive gesture, or any absence of gesture, related to your departure was not intentional. A part of you just wishes that there could have been a little more intention from some, one way or the other. But you carry on, the self-propelled wind at your back and that stolen classroom key in your purse, at once a symbol of the doors you have locked behind you and the doors you are now opening. You can’t help but feel that all is forgotten.