Dear Graduating Class of 2021 (but quite specifically Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy graduating class of 2021),
I see you.
You are brilliant.
I love you.
Remember this: if you were my student, at any point, you are always my student. What that means is that I want to hear from you, hear about you, and that I will carry you always in the lake of my heart.
And while I wish I could take credit for that metaphor (get ready for those AP exams, children of America), I must give the credit where it is due: Dante Aligheri. Yes, that, Dante Aligheri who my AP/DE students and I have been reading these past few weeks. The Inferno.
For me, it seems an apt text after this year of far too much: too much chaos, too much fear, too much grief. Too much.
When I was re-diagnosed, just before the start of the pandemic, with cancer, a former professor of mine from undergraduate wrote me a letter and called what I was going through “too much.”
I needed to read those simple words, specifically, because although the pandemic had not yet fully “hit” this continent, in my tiny world, life felt awfully “too much”—too scary, too grim, too painful. As our friend T.S. Eliot put it in your favorite poem (stop laughing, Keetra), “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,/And in short, I was afraid.”
I was so afraid, and still am sometimes, but not nearly as often as I was in those early days of my cancer diagnosis, the pandemic, the political unrest in this nation, school shutdowns, the deaths swelling the lakes in our hearts overfull, flooding us.
When I stepped into 2020, my heart’s lake polluted with fear. Fear of the future. Fear of the present. Fear of the countless things I could never really know.
Know this: there is so much we can never know for certain and this fact makes life by turns exquisitely beautiful and stunningly brutal. I don’t need to explain this more to you, Class of 2021. In your very short lives, you have endured, witnessed and born so much. Too much.
I see you.
You are strong.
I love you.
“The lake of the heart”—in The Inferno, a medieval, epic poem, that some of you think will never really end (I can assure you, the poem, like all things in this world, will end), Dante the pilgrim (not to be confused with Dante the poet) talks about disturbances in his “heart’s lake”.
My colleague and friend, Michael Levin, tells me Pinksy’s translation is the “superb” of the English Inferno translations. We are reading the Mandelbaum translation because that was the one I knew best.
May you, Class of 2021, have many friends in your life like Michael Levin: those you can dream with, and playfully banter, until you’re cry-laughing, belly laughing, stumble-laughing. Someone who sees you for you, and who challenges you in the right and good ways.
I see you.
You will be okay.
I love you.
FALA Class of 2021, I have had the distinct honor of knowing some of you since you were 12. When I close my eyes, I can still see your baby faces—Keetra, Kelly, Milo, Marlee, Jerome, Florence, Jessica . . . I can see your beautiful faces. I’ve known you so long that whenever I want, I can see your faces in my mind’s eye. Your faces, reflecting upon the surface of my “heart’s lake.”
I know your hearts’ lakes, at least a little bit.
I love your lakes.
I have drunk the joy from the lakes of your hearts since 2014, and it has nourished me, grown me, changed me in the most miraculous, strange, wholly unexpected days.
Allow room for the unknown. Make peace with the unknown as soon as you are able to. Drink from the lake in your heart: is the water clean? Polluted? And if it is polluted, what is polluting it and how can you make the water clean and drinkable again?
Each of you has a lake in your heart (figuratively; I’m no doctor, but I am a professional patient and I know for a fact there is no literal “lake” in our physical “heart”—stop laughing, Keetra, this is serious).
Keep your heart’s lake clean.
Check in on it from time to time.
Make sure your humanity, compassion, capacity for forgiveness is wholly intact, healthy, bobbing peacefully at the surface on the lake of your heart.
Don’t let your humanity, compassion, capacity for love sink to the floor.
As I am graduating from FALA with you, Class of 2021, I want to say this: you are so very special to me not only because of how long I’ve known you but because of who you are as human beings. I like you. As in, even if I wasn’t your teacher, I would think each of you was a cool person that I would like to have coffee with. Please stay in touch. Unless, of course, you hold me in great contempt—in which case, let our paths part in peace. (Stop laughing, Keetra.)
Let people love you the way I have loved you: fearlessly, genuinely, fiercely. And love the people in your life with the same ferocity and sincerity, and if you just cannot, then you need new friends, a new job, a new community. People really are easy to love if you give them a proper chance.
Class of 2021, you have been so easy for me to love. I never had my own children (for this I am most grateful), so I had lots of room for you, and I have lots of room, going forward, for my future students in Tucson. What I will take with me from FALA, to the teens of Tucson, I will have learned largely from you. You, Class of 2021, taught me first how to be with 7th graders (when I walked into your 7th grade class, as your teacher, I had not so much as seen another 7th grader since I myself was a 7th grader—didn’t even know what y’all ate), how to be with teenagers, how to be with young adults, how to become a better, a bit more evolved, kind of Actual Adult. (Quit laughing, Keetra, this is terribly serious).
Thank you FALA Class of 2021, for all that you have brought to my life, for letting me be a part of your life, for trusting me with your heart, and for being gentle with my heart in kind. Thank you for only making my heart’s lake deeper, purer, blue-er? (Stop laughing, Keetra.)
I see you all.
I hear you all.
I love you all.
Go in grace. Go in peace. Laugh. Be silly. Ask for help when you need it. Keep laughing, Keetra (and the rest of you). Call me. Text me. PM me. You will always be my students, and you will always be my teachers.
Allison Gruber is a writer and educator living in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has been produced on-stage, anthologized and published in many literary journals such as Pithead Chapel, Brevity and The Literary Review. Her first collection of essays, You’re Not Edith (2015), was a Lambda Literary Award Finalist. Her second collection of essays, Transference, will be released with Tolsun Books in the fall of 2021. She holds an MFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been teaching at the secondary and post-secondary level for well over a decade.