Goodbye to My College Students — Part II

There is something about saying goodbye to a career or place that brings people out of the woodwork to tell you how much you will be missed or what a great job you did. We shouldn’t wait for the goodbye moments to tell someone how much we appreciate them. However, those of us on the receiving end can take the compliments with grace and goodwill.

Here is Part II of my goodbye to my college students after a 17-year career at the university. After a difficult semester, some of the final moments of my teaching life became some of my most memorable and heartwarming. (To read Part I, click here.)

After my final class, where I delivered my impromptu speech from Part I, a few students came up to my desk to chat. Because there was a finality to my actual intention of retiring from teaching, there was now an interest in talking to me that never happened during my weekly office hours!

Nevertheless, I had time to listen and respond to their concerns. I noticed that Justin (fake name) lingered in the background; I could tell he had a deeper concern and wanted a longer conversation.

In my Speech class, Justin had revealed throughout the semester bits and pieces of his troubled life. He had been raised in foster homes and now, at age twenty, was living by himself in the big city. No family, no close friends. (However, given his outgoing and energetic personality in his first in-person semester, I doubt he will remain friendless for long.)

Justin was the last to approach me after the others had left. His first question surprised me.

“Do you think I’d make a good teacher,” he asked.

I looked him square in the eyes. “Justin, because of your suffering, you will make a great teacher.”

I went on to tell him that if I was considered a good teacher, it was not because I went to Ivy League schools or graduated summa cum laude from my undergraduate and graduate schools.

I became a good teacher because of my experiences, mostly the bad ones. I am a good teacher because I was bullied. Because I was voted the quietest in my class in high school. Because my early and enduring faith in God took me to the mat time and time again. Because early on I was humiliated in my auditions in New York. Because I had lived in fourth-floor walkups and battled mice and cockroaches. Because I nearly lost my life to violent crime. Because I (barely) lived through the AIDS era and the Covid pandemic. Because I had once declared bankruptcy. Because I’d gotten bad reviews on some of my work. Because I was never paid well or fairly for my work.

My suffering prepared me for what would ultimately be my greatest stage: the classroom. And even there, I wasn’t fully appreciated until I said goodbye.

After hearing an abridged version of the above spiel, Justin said, “I don’t know what my purpose is. Maybe I can find it in teaching.”

“That would be a beautiful thing,” I said. “It was never supposed to be my purpose. I took the job as a way to get through grad school and then the magic and the purpose came to me pretty quickly.”

I explained to Justin that the questions are more important than the answers, and as long as he keeps asking the good questions, he will be led into situations that may open new doors for him; doors that let in the light and provide a way out of the darkness.

I told him there was no time limit or clear answer to the “What shall I be?” question. My life had not ended up the way I expected but that, now in my fifties, I was still looking forward to new opportunities and possibilities.

Justin was not one of my A students, although he did pretty well. I’m not worried about his future.

* * *

On my way out the door, I was given an opportunity at the college that I had never been granted before. I was asked to coach the valedictorian and salutatorian on their speeches!

It turns out that the salutatorian, Ali Khalil, was one of my former Speech students from 2019 (pre-pandemic). And Rose Mary Biju, valedictorian, was an honors student. Obviously, both are remarkable students.

Ali came to the United States from Egypt at age sixteen, a junior in high school. Here barely knew the English language, but studied and drilled himself day and night so that he could get up to college-level proficiency by the time he graduated high school.

His first college application was a rejection, but then he got the acceptance and enrolled at City College. His speech was about how dreams must be followed by action, and that persistence will get you there. One of his most memorable lines: “Life does not get tougher; we get stronger.” Second in a large graduating class was quite an accomplishment.

I didn’t learn as much about Rose Mary’s personal story, but her speech about the importance of family and connection was timely and urgent, and as a future doctor, her empathy and passion for humanity were front and center. She closed her speech by saying, “After all, there is only us. Many hearts craving the very same thing, to love and to be loved. Who else, if not us, will rise to the challenge?”

It is these final images of the best kinds of students — both the struggling, questioning one and the future leader — that still give me hope for the world becoming a better place.

For now, it is time for me to step aside, regroup, and see how I can best serve the future. I, too, am a student. The learning should never stop.

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Kevin Scott Hall

Kevin Scott Hall

I am an author, freelance writer, and singer/songwriter. I split my time between Brooklyn, NY and my native Massachusetts. I teach at City College of New York.