Graduation was yesterday, and though I tend to think I’m a bit of a sap when it comes to these events at BFA, I was comforted to read our director’s words this morning. I guess it hits us all in similar ways. Tim Shuman, who graduated his own son yesterday, wrote: “[I’m] trying to think of a word to describe this sadness, this excitement, this deep-down satisfaction, this emotional depletion, optimism, gratitude, this bonding and letting go, this exhaustion, and all these tears. What is that word?”
That word is love.
In a place like BFA, love comes with inflexible boundaries. It can exist—fully exist—only within the timeframe allotted to us, and with graduation, the love must transform into something different, something long-distance and usually changing. It’s the nature of this beast we call missions. All good things do indeed come to an end, an abrupt, jarring end, and the transglobal nature of our lives further broadens the chasm between what was so very real and tangible yesterday and is now a vestige of the past.
Several days ago, the senior girls were invited to a mother-daughter tea, and I was honored to be asked to stand in for Squirt’s mom. As we wandered around the Art Factory afterwards, I found these inscriptions on the walls outside, traces of passages that would not be forgotten as long as they were marked on unshifting stone.
I’m a firm believer in “marking moments.” Again—that’s probably a consequence of life as an MK. We experience so much and go through so many changes that it feels like we need evidence of joys past, of lives that have brushed ours and events that have shaped us. We need to be able to point at something and say, “See? It really did happen!” It’s the reason we sign yearbooks.
It’s the reason we leave messages on walls.
It’s the reason I have students leave their imprint on anything of mine that has meant something to them.
I need proof—visible proof. Because once the dust of something as momentous as graduation at BFA settles and those who have been such important parts of my life have vanished to other homes and other worlds, it often feels like there’s nothing left. And that void—that emptiness that used to feel so animatedly and lovingly FULL—becomes a yawning wound. There are exceptions. Thank God, there are exceptions. And Fiona’s return for this year’s grad was a balm and a promise for me. But I’ve been at this too long to ignore the fact that these relationships, these tandem-lives, will never be again what they were.
Graduation in other places means receiving a diploma, then wandering home and spending the summer with the same people who shared high school with you, waiting for college to begin and planning to see each other again on every break. At BFA? Well, at BFA, students arrive at grad like this:
And they know. They know that within 24 hours, they’ll have flown across the globe to places where their BFA experience will feel remote and surreal. So the aftermath of the ceremony is painful. The goodbyes are brutal. And for those of us who have been through 18 years of endings, they’re depleting.
I didn’t have the courage to mill around with the rest of the post-grad revelers this year. I’m ashamed to admit my cowardice. I sat in the open window of a second-floor English room and took pictures. My Canon is my barrier of choice when it comes to distancing myself from what is too achingly real. And these three (below)—these three whom I love more than I t
hought was possible—found me in my refuge. They came one by one to say their goodbyes and their love gave me the courage to venture down into the fray.
They’ve left their mark on the stone walls of my life in more ways than I can list. There’s a fan in my kitchen that Bear gave to me. He’d rush out of choir when he saw me “overheating” and return with it, placing it strategically to cool off his Tamoxifen-warmed teacher. It now says, in bold white letters, “The Giver of Life – Love, Bear.” Who knew that a fan could make me tear up every time I look at it?
But it’s the goodbye letters I read last night that mean the most to me. Those notes “my” seniors found the time to write in the insanity of their final days, their words of love and gratitude, they fill the aching void left by their departure with a welling joy. Because, you see, I often fear that though their names are engraved on my wall, I might have somehow misjudged my contribution to their lives. I might have failed to make a difference or leave a mark or guide them toward Truth or comfort them or cheer them on or challenge them or show God’s love to them in a way that might have jostled and deepened their faith. But the words I read yesterday…they comfort me. We will never be able to recapture what we’ve lived together, now that graduation’s milestone has passed. But what we did have was good—it was beautiful and significant and God-seeking. And those traces of joy and struggles and love that still surround me will remind me of His Faithfulness in making of this part of the journey something precious and true.
At 2 am, last week, I sat outside against the wall of my house, staring up at the sky with three students and a saintly RA (who sacrificed sleep in order to allow the moment) while candles flickered in the grass. We were talking about BFA’s staff, and Erin—my dear, whimsical, sensitive and strong Erin—said, “I guess you’re paid to love us, aren’t you.” It wasn’t meant as cynically as it sounds… But I’ve learned one thing from working with teenagers all these years: if you take too much time to come up with a response, you lose credibility. So I fired back immediately with my heart’s best answer. “Nope—I’m paid to teach you. Loving you? That’s all me.” It’s not a job or an assignment. It’s the most natural and wonderful thing in the world.
As I posed with swollen eyes and aching heart for a few last pictures yesterday—a few last traces of what we’ve lived together—I realized that I have seldom loved more deeply than with these seniors this year. And if this day-after pain is a testament to that, I’ll gladly embrace it.
Please pray for the graduates as they leave here today after a full night of goodbye’ing. For many of them, there will be a marrow-deep feeling of being adrift and bereft, at least until they get settled into their new college lives. Pray that they will seek God in the emptiness and follow Him in their pursuit of the future wide open before them. Pray that the Truths engraved in their lives by all they’ve experienced at BFA will continue to guide them and boundary them as they venture into an uncharted next phase. Lest you missed it—I love them. And I’d covet your prayers for them.
The many faces of Squirt…
…and Erin too, apparently!
Imagine graduating three sons on the same day!
The amazing Crooks family.
No resemblance there…nuh-uh.
Alumni back for a visit…
At the mother-daughter tea.
she gave me two. Yay. Two lives.
Alumni games the day before graduation
Saying some tough goodbyes to staff on awards night.
Grad practice. Not much concentration there!
And now–life beyond grad begins in earnest.
beautifully put, michele. as usual. i have such a hard time explaining to people why grad at BFA is such a painful, yet uniquely beautiful event, and i often find myself returning to your words. sometimes even to explain it to myself. you are such a blessing to those kids and i know they love and will miss you as much or more as you do them. i love them too….so thank you for being there for them, for laughing with them, for teaching them, and for just plain loving on them, whether or not you’re paid for it 🙂
on a side note…i have NO idea how you’ve survived this 18 times. 4 was WAY more than plenty for me. i think if caleb ends up graduating from BFA i’m going to pretend my plane got hijacked by terrorists and fail to show up 😛 you’ve got more strength than you give yourself credit for, for putting yourself through it over and over 🙂 i think a little “cowardly” hiding out is acceptable.
i knew i would cry upon reading this…but reading about the special moments spent with Alyssa, Josh and Erin brought me to tears…again. I can only imagine how each life has been affected this day. I know that you will also miss your dear friend who is not going to be on staff there next year…I can’t remember her name, but i know how she’s been dear to you. for someone who feels so deeply as you do..its not cowardly at all to retreat and attempt to keep your heart from the pain of immersing yourself in those goodbyes. i’m glad that those three so dear to your heart were able to come and say those things to you and give you the strength of their loves to venture out and to say other goodbyes as well. i cried the most when i read about Bear’s fan to you…Squirt’s bear and most of all the letters that were written. i’m pretty sure that would make me cry all over again. You are loved Michele…LOVED!
i read it twice… i love you michele. talk to you again soon! 🙂
“Because, you see, I often fear that though their names are engraved on my wall, I might have somehow misjudged my contribution to their lives.”
As the spiritual mother of many, you write with a calculated hand on the hearts of the open. You haven’t misjudged; you’ve stayed humble. And, through that process, you attract others with love unceasing. You are the unscripted, unnamed Jesus in a place where The Name is the answer to a test question or the religious packaging of “misunderstood and unattainable” rather than “tangible and understanding”.
Orthodox? No. But, unconditional? It seems so.
Each name engraved on your wall stores for you treasure in heaven – a multitude of crowns crafted over your lifetime. And, as you lay those crowns at the feet of Jesus, those from whom they stemmed will appear and bear witness as a spiritual testimony. One by one, each will reveal his/her heart. Through the illumination of Christ, the words you inscribed will be made visible to all. On one heart, it will read “You are worthy.” On another, “You are beautiful.” On others, “You are enough,” “I believe in you,” and “I love you.” In that holy moment, I trust you will begin to understand the depth of your work, the foundations that were set, and the seeds that were sown strategically into good ground.
Leadership is not merely about likability but also about your ability to inspire and influence. You possess all three with the meekness of a dove and the craftiness of a serpent. Your leadership is provoking and eternally demanding. Your contributions are not lost. They are not forgotten. And, they will never die.
It’s been eleven years since I met you. Seven since I’ve seen you. My life has never been the same.