We see them 180 days per year. Some we see for two years in a row, because ours is sometimes a first grade and sometimes a second grade classroom. To say that we know them well after that degree of exposure is understatement. We know which foods they crave and which they won't touch, which authors and genres they seek out and which they don't, what they like in a friend and what they don't.
We know what and who they think they want to be when they grow up. We know how they feel about their little brother or older sister. We know their favorite color, the state of their teeth (one loose, one VERY loose, and one that was lost just last night because an intrepid dad pulled it out), and how likely they are to squirm in their seats.
We know when they are getting sick or feeling sad or angry. We know when they're having an 'off' day for no particular reason that we or they can discern (although the usual culprit is lack of sleep). We know who will call out instead of raising his or her hand, and who will sneak a paper into the 'finished basket' that is not quite, or far from, finished. We know who will ask to use the bathroom when it is time for writing, and why. We know all the pencil sharpening styles: the quick jab that does nothing (because the pencil was already sharp enough), or the long unnecessary push because the student is either daydreaming or stalling.
We know how they keep their desks (tidy, messy, or worthy of the show Hoarders), what types of toys they prefer to play with during indoor recess, who is feeling left out, and who is having a growth spurt (physical, intellectual, or socioemotional).
Imagine, then, how hard it is to say goodbye to them each June. When we see them in the halls the next year or in the years after that, they grow increasingly distant, not because they are being rude, but because they have changed so much that the people they were in first or second grade are not really there anymore.
Sometimes I see fifth graders who were once first or second graders in our classroom, and I think, But wait! Whatever happened to your sick cat? Do you still want to be a doctor?
Instead I smile, and if they aren't with friends they will smile back and acknowledge me with a wave or a greeting. When occasionally they do venture back into our classroom they never fail to comment on how small everything looks — the vantage point of a ten-year-old so different from that of a six-year-old.
And this is how it should be: They grow up! They move on!
But I'd be lying if I told you that each June does not bring with it nineteen or twenty small heartaches. When they leave on the last day of school, their excitement about summer eclipses any kind of meaningful leavetaking we might have, and this, again, is how it should be.
Yet the truth is that they are readier to move up to another grade than we are ready to see them go, which means, when you get right down to it, that we love them.