By Nathaniel Pila
AmeriCorps member on the Northrup Grumman team serving at Ketcham Elementary School   

It wasn’t until the last Learning and Development Conference in April that this occurred to me. By the end of May, I will have to say my least favorite word more than twenty times: “Goodbye.” When I realized this, I panicked. Now, I have moved far away from friends many times, but also stayed long enough in places to build attachments. Saying “goodbye” to people who mean a lot to me is a custom that I am used to. It’s not saying “goodbye” that is the issue.

The problem with all twenty plus goodbyes I’m going to say at the end of the month is that I have never—in all my years of moving around and forming relationships—built such strong relationships with individuals in such a short span of time. Imagine being used to having candy of all sorts readily available to you and you ate as much candy as you pleased for ten months straight. But then all of a sudden, you’re told that you’re not allowed to have candy any more. The shock would be devastating. Now, I’m not saying I’m addicted to the sweetness of my students—sometimes their sourness over school is difficult to swallow because I loved school as a child. But I will sincerely miss every one of them.

I’ll miss seeing them progress. I’ll miss seeing them grow—literally. I serve in a Kindergarten classroom and the amount of change I have seen in my students in a year is incredible. Whether it was someone from my small group finally being able to sound out the word “mat” after weeks of practicing, or hearing one of my behavior focus list students say at the start of the day, “I’m going to be on purple all day!” Several of my students have even grown much taller compared to the beginning of the year!

There is one student in particular that I will especially miss. My relationship with him has completely transformed from the beginning of the year to now. Our first time spent together, and many times throughout the year, consisted of him running away from me in my attempts to redirect him. When I was first shadowing the Kindergarten classroom that I now serve in, he ran out of the classroom minutes before a fire drill happened. When I had caught up with him, the fire drill began, and he started covering his ears. With the help of another teacher, I managed to stay with him as we met up with our class on the field. This happened many times throughout the year and we were fated to spend a lot of time together.

Several weeks after beginning the school year, he could only go to the bathroom if I escorted him. Now? I instinctively get up whenever he asks our teacher to use the bathroom—knowing that she’ll say yes as long as I’m not busy. Not everything with him is super easy, though. He is incredibly hard on himself despite being very bright. He calls himself stupid if he doesn’t get an answer right and he cries out in anger whenever I have to tell him to do an addition problem again because he miscounted by one.

The last few weeks of school, he has been having a particularly rough time focusing, which means he has been missing a lot of instruction. A few weeks ago, his father came in the morning to talk to him. Once we were headed back to our classroom, he suddenly stopped walking. When I asked him, “What’s wrong?”

He leaned against the wall and quietly said with his fists balled up, “I hate my dad.”

This really struck me that a five-year-old could not only verbalize feeling like this, but he chose to reveal this feeling to me, of all the people in the school. Me. All I do is help him focus in class and make sure he doesn’t get into any fights. All I do is escort him to the bathroom. All I do is sit with him on the carpet when he’s having a rough day.

I didn’t know how to respond with words, so I did what my heart told me to do: I hugged him. And what struck me even more was despite the anger that he was feeling right then and there, he accepted it.

I wish I could say that my hug was magic and all of a sudden he started to do amazing in school. Unfortunately, that was not the case. He still struggles with focusing in class; he still has rough days; and he still gets into fights occasionally. But since that day, it’s like he realized that I truly do care for him – not because it’s my job, but because I just do. He always wants to be in my center during center time or go with me whenever I’m about to go into my lunch break. He always wants to know where I’m going.

I have already let some of my students know that I will not be their City Year next year. A lot have responded with “Why?” Some have even said, “I’m going to move to a different school, too!” Kindergarteners are funny that way. One of them now starts asking me for hugs on an nearly hourly basis and gives them titles (“This is your ‘Good Morning’ hug!” and “This is your ‘Recess’ hug!”). I’m going to miss my kids. All of them. Even when sometimes I get so confused as to why they would do something like draw on themselves with permanent marker. Or frustrated at how quick they are to not believe in themselves. Or worried when one boy tries to walk away from the class right before a fire drill.

I’m used to saying “goodbye.” I’ve said it a lot in my life before. These twenty-one “goodbyes” I will have said by the end of the month, though, will be the hardest of goodbyes I will ever say.

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