When Providence High School teacher Annie McCanless imagined the last day of school at the end of her 29-year-long career, it wasn’t anything too flashy. But she did picture it as a day full of meaningful in person goodbyes to students, and well-wishes from colleagues.
"Without having to social distance (there) would be some hugs, and would be some waves, and some thank yous on my part to my friends," McCanless said. "And that my last day would really be one that I'm going to be able to walk out the door, graduate, and find something new to do."
With Gov. Roy Cooper’s recent announcement that classes will remain virtual through the end of the academic year, she’ll have to find a different way to celebrate the end of her decades-long career.
At first, McCanless was on the fence about retirement. But after the outbreak of the coronavirus and the sudden shift to online learning, she knew it was time.
"For me that was weird," she said. "Talking to a device, it’s very awkward."
Lucky for McCanless, she had been walking through the year much like a high school senior does. Every school event had a touch of preemptive nostalgia pinned to it.
"Your last homecoming, your last prom, your last canned food drive," she reflected. "Things that you do that make a memory. What are you going to leave behind? What is the legacy going to be that you’re leaving behind?"
McCanless hopes to be remembered by students as an enthusiastic educator and one that cared. She taught African American studies, government, and civics courses. She says she always encouraged debate and discussion in class, something that she is still trying to do online. But she really does miss the in-person contact with her students.
"You interact with them in so many different ways from in the hall when they are walking in, and you’re greeting students -- not just standing in front of the classroom," she said. "Because a lot of it is encouraging and trying to get the best out of students that you can get."
Highlights from her career include organizing student field trips to the past three presidential inaugurations. Even though her mind is set on retirement, her heart is a little sad to be missing out on the upcoming academic year -- especially the next one, which is during a presidential election.
"I miss the getting ready for next year, because that’s the way I’ve always taught," she said. "You do a lesson, you finish, you reflect, and say ‘Oh gosh, next year I can do it like this.’ And that’s not going to be there."
Although she’s disappointed to be retiring during this age of social distancing, she always turns the conversation back to her students. There’s the magic of being a senior in the waning months of the school year that students just can’t get from home.
"We just lost that whole fourth quarter when seniors really become open to new friends and they change," McCanless said. "Those fourth-quarter seniors sort of become these adults, you look at them differently, maybe. You’re trying to let them go and kick them out the door -- but then as a teacher you want to know how do they do when they go to college? Did I do the right thing in making them do this particular unit in this particular class?"
McCanless makes a point of going to every graduation possible and she’s a little sad for herself, it's uncertain if she'll be able to attend her final graduation in person because of social distancing.
But she’s mostly feeling for those seniors who likely won't get to walk across the stage, to get that sense of closure.
"It makes it sort of a period on the end of the sentence, that one little special last time to be together," she said. "They throw their caps in the air and walk out and you would think they would be ready to leave, but they stand outside and talk to each other and they are hugging each other and saying goodbye to each other because it’s their last time -- to where the show pros have to start shooing them away because there is another graduation right behind them!"
McCanless wonders about the other little and big things that come with the end of the school year. When will she be able to empty out her filing cabinets? How will students return textbooks? And what about yearbooks?
She’s been reflecting on the message she would have penned in students' yearbooks. There’s a Martin Luther King Jr. quote that’s really spoken to her during this time:
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
She admits that might be a little too long for a crowded yearbook page. Instead she thinks she would have written something along these lines:
"Rise up, move on, you can do it."
A message that can be felt whether it’s written on the page, or sent virtually.
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