Although generally joyous, the end of school years also have a twinge of sadness.
Our time together-and, with it, my chance to directly impact the students-has ended.
Life goes on.
Last Tuesday marked the addition of a new group to the list: the 20 or so students in my Data Journalism class at the University of Diego Portales.
It’s been close to three decades since I first worked with three- to five-year-old students at the Bellehaven Child Development Center in East Menlo Park.
I still remember their eyelashes, their angelic expressions and the silence that greeted me after I had biked away from Stanford’s leafy luxury and toward their grittier neighborhoods.
I didn’t know what I was doing with them.
I didn’t know why so few fathers came to get them.
But I did know that I was where I belonged.
Since then I’ve worked with students of all kinds of ages and backgrounds in Boston suburbs, Appalachian classrooms, and one of South Africa’s first private multi-racial schools.
This group was special, though.
It was both my first crop of Chilean students and my first Spanish-language class.
We adjusted to each other as the semester unfolded.
I learned both how to explain the requirements with more clarity and to convey my insistence that they attend class and do work in order to pass. I changed the assignments from a series of smaller items and what amounted to a continent-wide fishing expedition around lotteries to three projects of increasing scope, rigor and sophistication.
For their part, the students had a series of experiences-projects, articles, guest lecturers-that allowed them to better understand the sensibility I wanted them to develop and the world of data journalism they could enter, not just the data analysis skills they needed to acquire.
But I didn’t just talk to the students about data.
I told them how I had wanted to go to Chile for many years and how I had applied to the Fulbright program four times before being accepted.
I told them about how extraordinary what was happening in the country before the September 11 anniversary of the coup, how significant the presidential elections were.
I also talked to them about my tremendous fortune in being there with Dunreith, about being able to work on a project for The New Yorker with my brother Jon, who shared his work and talked with the students twice. I let them know how much it meant to me to have Dad there, who told them about the importance of being actively involved in both sides of a mentoring relationship.
Finally, I urged them to give themselves enough time to do the kind of work of which I knew they were capable and to finish strong.
On Tuesday, they did just that.
One by one they stood and delivered at the front of the room. They talked about their data sets, their maps, their graphics and the law they chose to evaluate. Using Powerpoint or Prezi or a Google Docs, students who had had no idea of what a database was at the beginning of the semester explained how they had acquired and analyzed their data.
Dunreith and Aidan arrived about two thirds of the way through the class.
My family I said.
Please give them a round of applause.
The class complied with gusto.
The last student finished about 10 minutes after our scheduled time, and I moved forward to the front of the room for the last time.
I apologized for the lateness and asked them to think back to August, when they knew little to nothing about data.
I told them again how much I had enjoyed working with them and how being there and working with them was the realization of a dream for me.
I told them that I had learned that it’s possible to live from dreams and values, and that I hope they felt the same way.
I explained that they had had the opportunity to meet some of the people in the world who do the best work in this area.
And your brother, one student called out.
And your father, said another.
You’re almost there, I said.
I’m proud of the progress you’ve made, but you’re not done yet.
You can finish strong.
I believe in you, I said. I’m available to you as a resource now and in the future. And I’ll be in my office tomorrow if you need help.
Then I thanked them and told them they could go.
The students applauded and started to leave.
I stood by the door.
The male students and I hugged each other on the way out.
The women and I kissed each other’s cheeks.
Then it was over.
Grading and deciding with Dunreith and Aidan what to do next awaited.
As always, I had the knowledge that I could have done better.
Vulnerability in the knowledge, too, that life continues its ceaseless forward flow. The end of the class anticipated, in a small but real way, the ultimate ending we all face.
But I also felt good, deep down good, at the knowledge that I had given my best, at what we had done together and at the transmission of a spark that I believe, at least for some, will not soon be extinguished.