Hard to Say Goodbye

It’s not that I don’t love you deeply
You were my family
It’s just that I’m feeling there’s so much more
Waiting out there for you and me.

“Hard to Say Goodbye,” Dreamgirls

On one hand, I began my year knowing that it would be my last at this school. About halfway through, I began seeing pathways for me to stay, particularly a position as an Academic Dean that I was more than qualified for; that my peers and certain members of the leadership team wanted me to consider.

Consider it, I did. Apply for it, I did. And when it became apparent that I could not, in good conscience, report to someone who did not respect me, I withdrew my application.

The countdown began. In spite of lingering tensions with leadership, my students still grew, academically and personally. Referrals originating from my classroom were low, due to using restorative practices with fidelity. I stayed out of leadership’s way and they stayed out of mine.

I began to tell my students, class by class, that this would be our last hurrah. That I’d be moving to North Carolina to focus on my writing career. And when they asked if it was because of any conflicts I’d had with leadership, I was honest: yes, it was that, too. But I admonished them to “Let my beef be my beef. Don’t take up that beef on my behalf.”

They gave me their word and remained true. They were not necessarily pleased that my work environment had become untenable, but they were happy that I would be able to invest in myself as a writer. And they continued to work hard on their goals.

Even though I thought everyone knew about my transition, the message missed one of my students–we’ll call him Miles. Articulate and quirky, Miles was a bundle of sinewy muscle and energy. He was an acquired taste among students and staff. You either got him or you didn’t get him.

I got him. I don’t know why, but I did. When he had trouble connecting with other teachers, they knew they could send him to me–and he often came to me without prompting. I primarily worked with him on Social Studies. He preferred working independently, but he was not an organized student. He knew how to read well, and for the most part, he processed well, but he had never been taught how to take good notes or how to use his knowledge base to put the pieces together.

Part of that was simply his wiring. The other part was teaching him to undo bad habits. We had begun the process, but his spotty attendance made it hard to get into a rhythm. As time ran out in the school year, it didn’t seem that Miles’ success on the GED was to be–yet.

On the day of my farewell activity, Miles asked me to step into the hallway to speak to him. It was 1:50pm and I knew the students would be assembling to say goodbye in ten minutes.

“What’s this about you leaving, Mr. Darden? I ain’t know nothing about this,” he said.

“Oh man, Miles, I’m sorry. I thought you knew already.”

“No, I didn’t know. This is some bullshit. I know we not that close, but we building something here. Man-time, if it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be close to passing at all. You really brought me up and got me to GED Ready levels.”

“Miles, that was your hard work, not me.”

“No, it was you. When other teachers wasn’t fuckin’ with me, you was. And I don’t mean to be cussing and shit, but I’m just trying to be real with you. You helped me see what I was doing wrong and got me together.”

He continued, his eyes red and his voice cracking. A tear streamed out of one eye, then the other. He never stopped talking the whole time.

“You one of the best teachers in here, Mr. Darden. Even the niggas that don’t like you still come to your room because even if you got beef in that moment, they know what you’re all about. You the realest in here and they know that.”

I nodded and thanked him.

“I know you gotta do what’s best for you, Mr. Darden, and I’m not trying to be selfish, but there’s gotta be a way for you to do both. You can’t leave us. You can write books and do this, too.”

“I tried, Miles. I tried, and I can’t.”

You know the final scene in Precious, where Mo’Nique gives her big monologue, and Mariah Carey breaks character and cries, wiping a tear from her eye mid-scene?

That was me.

He never stopped talking, and I hugged him, and held him, and I thanked him for believing in me and appreciating me. That it made me feel good to be seen and noticed.

I know, deep down, he wasn’t convinced, but that he had resolved to let me go anyway.

A man has never cried for me. I must pause and really reflect on that. This man poured his heart out to me and pleaded with me to stay, to figure out a plan to be both writer and teacher so that I could be in place, not just for him, but for others.

I really felt blessed in that moment. Miles had never shown that level of emotion, to my knowledge, at any other time in school. It’s not lost on me that this was the moment, our moment, that fixed point where time and place converge and become a nexus where we live forever.

Metaphysically, I had been seen. And I saw him. And we just existed, together, being real with one another.

I told him I needed a tissue. He jokingly said I would cry even worse when he saw what everybody had planned for me on the inside.

I didn’t want this to happen,
But we shouldn’t feel sad.
We had a good life together.
Just remember, remember, all the times we had.

Miles was still in a mood, but the vibe inside my classroom was celebratory. Speeches were made, tears were shed, and cupcakes were consumed. My coworker lauded me on my ability to bring peace and calm to a room–which I appreciated for its truth, yet marveled in its irony, as I rarely felt peaceful on the inside.

Students shared stories of how I’d kick them out of my class, how I’d inspired them to read more books, or how I was just a friendly face at the right time.

One student from a previous school, Saleem, said that he started attending my class because all the girls signed up for my classes, and he wanted to go where the girls were. In the process, he said he not only learned a lot, but he wanted to get the same juice that this gay man had.

I could tell my current students were annoyed with him for mentioning my orientation, but I helped bring his point home by nodding and saying “Yes. I’m most people’s favorite gay man.” My students laughed and loosened up.

As I write this, it’s very soon after the events of that afternoon. With time, I may process these moments more and reach some additional conclusions. So perhaps I won’t end this essay right away.

I will, instead, share the letter that I wrote to my students on that day, which I read aloud and was translated to Spanish by my dear friend Zoila. Perhaps the wisdom in it will be helpful to you or someone you love as well.

From the desk of Mr. Darden

To my dear students,

I became an educator in 2003, when I became a long-term substitute at LaSalle Elementary School.  I later worked at Heads Up, an afterschool program in locations including Amidon and Bowen Elementary Schools in Southwest DC.  After taking a break to join the nonprofit sector as a fundraiser and communications director, I came back to education as a Reading Instructor at LAYC Career Academy, joined Sustainable Futures as a Founding Humanities Teacher, and finally landed at YouthBuild, teaching English and Social Studies.

All the while, I wrote and published novels and other books:  Lazarus (2005), Covenant (2011), Epiphany (2012), Birth of a Dark Nation (2013), Yours in the Bond (2019), and more.

I worked full time and I wrote books.  I did both for my entire adult life and I have achieved a lot.  However, now that I am almost 40, I think it’s time for me to finally make the decision to make a commitment to my first love: writing.  Imagine what I will be able to do now that I’ve decided to put myself first.

You all have meant the world to me, from my first job to my last.  Although leaving this job is a relief, leaving you is very hard and very sad.  I hope that you keep in touch with me, during your good times, your hard times, and even the times in between that you think may be boring.  I promise you that I will be interested in every piece of your journey.

I dedicate the final chapter of my teaching career in DC to our friends Davane Williams, Saoun Coplins, and Esperanza Argentina Jiguan.  In their honor, I wish you love, peace, and happiness.

I also leave you with the following words of wisdom:

1. Always be kind.

2. Read an article from The Washington Post every day.

3. Drink more water.  Eat more fruit. Eat more vegetables.

4. Repair the harm that you inflict upon others.  Everyone will, eventually do so, so be quick to repair it when it’s your turn.

5. Learn how to take care of your natural hair and skin.

6. See a doctor.  See a dentist. See a therapist.  Get professional massages.

7. Participate in some free activity that DC has to offer, at least once a month.

8. It is not true that you have to love yourself before anyone else can love you.  You deserve to be loved right now. In time, you will learn to love yourself.

9. If you want to be a good father, be a good man first.  If you want to be a good mother, be a good woman first.

10. Be prepared to die fighting for all that is virtuous and just, but ensure that you live long enough to teach virtue and justice to your grandchildren.  

With love,
Mr. Darden

You’ll know I’ll always love you.
You’ll know I’ll always care.
And no matter how far I may go,
In my thoughts,
You’ll always be there.

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