When I was in the 7th grade, after school I rode the bus to my mother's school (she taught the 3rd grade) and I would do my homework while she finished up her day. By that time of day her students had left and she would often have a conversation with the other teachers in the school. As children often are, I was privy to these adult conversations and one of them stands out in my mind.
To a friend whose daughter was graduating high school and moving away to attend college, my mother said, "only the healthy birds leave the nest." At the time, I didn't quite understand what she meant. But years later, I teach high school and I now know exactly what she meant. This year I teach a class of 9th graders, a class of 11th graders, and two classes of 12th graders. My classroom is filled with birds who are in various stages of preparation to leave the nest. And I think often about the wings they will need to take flight.
The 9th graders still have a few years to go but in just one school year, I have watched some of them develop the beginnings of the independence and bravery that they will require. They aren't really thinking of leaving the nest, so most have little anxiety about their long-term future. They are fixated on the next few weeks and the prospect of summer vacation. Though it's closer than they think, taking flight seems well in the distance for this group.
The 11th graders have begun the process of looking for a college. They are actively thinking about their future and most are excited. Right now, it feels as if the world is their oyster and this future of independence and freedom is still far away. But in a few weeks, when the seniors finish school and the juniors assume the position of power in the senior lounge, they will realize that the final stages of their journey out of the nest has truly begun. And suddenly they will begin to contemplate what it will really mean to leave.
Right now, the 12th graders are excited. While a few are still weighing their college options, most have made a decision. There is a certain amount of senioritus at work amongst them. But others are more somber as they consider what the next few months will bring. My school is pre-K through the 12 grade and a number of the students have been here for all of their schooling. For them, contemplation of the future is tempered by the knowledge that they are about to leave a school that has been their second home for nearly all of their life.
We spend a lot of time preparing them to leave the nest. From the moment they walk in our door, whether at age 4 or at age 14, it's our goal to send them on. We know that we don't get to keep them. We know that we must prepare them to successfully leave the nest. And in many more ways than they probably know, we have helped them to grow the wings this will require. When graduation comes, and they walk across the stage, some tentative and some proud, but nearly all of them ready to go, I will watch them with tears in my eyes. I know every one of them, some of them very well. I know that many are ready to embrace the uncertainty of life out of the nest. I know that some will struggle. And I know how exciting and how stressful the next few years will be. But I see a glimmer of the adults they will become. I see that that they are one step closer to building a nest of their very own. Mostly I will know that we've done our job well.
And then I will come home to my own nest, and to my own 7 year old bird. I will try to imagine that one day he will want to leave our nest. I know that it's my job to see that this happens for him. But I will tell myself that there is still time, still years and years before I watch him take flight from our nest.