This is a bit of a secret, but here goes: I can never hear “Let It Go” without smiling. There are reasons, I promise. (Admittedly, I like a lot of other songs without the reasons, but some things are meant to stay secret…)
When Frozen was the new big thing, The Paleontologist was still at nursery, and only knew the names of about 3 dinosaurs. Picking her up each lunchtime, we often found ourselves walking home with another little girl and, as often happens, the two became fast friends. It would take us twice as long to walk home, of course, but it was worth it for the company, for the grown ups as much as the small people. As we walked, we discussed everything from religion to the trials and tribulations of having little girls with ridiculously curly hair. It was mundane, often slightly stormy, and utterly lovely. A few journeys home stand out particularly clearly in my mind. One was the walk where we spoke of my friend’s family for the first time. She was from Yemen, and these were the days before the war there was particularly spoken about. It was from her that I heard about the conflict, and her who told me the story of a nephew of hers, lost in the fighting. She never said what side he fought on, and I saw no reason to ask. She did tell me his last action was to call his mother, pray for her, and tell her he couldn’t get out. She stayed on the phone until the line went dead.
My other memory is made more beautiful by the tragedy that walked with us at times. The Friend could barely speak English, growing up as she had in a bilingual household that spoke Arabic at home. The Paleontologist had never seen Frozen, or listened to any of the songs. But there they were, skipping down a backstreet, dodging dog poo and abandoned tyres, and belting this song out at the top of their voices, The Friend singing, The Paleontologist echoing. It remained their song until they left nursery to go their separate ways, to different schools and, soon enough, to different cities. In my mind, it will always be their song.
At this point in the academic year, Let It Go becomes a bit of an anthem. That and The Final Countdown. There are a lot of reasons for this, to say the least. Mistakes are always made, by teachers, by students, by other departments who frankly should know better. The time to sort them out has passed and we are left with no choice but to accept whatever outcome we are left with. Students who have failed who deserve to pass; students who have passed who did no work at all; students who have faced circumstances that mean they have dropped out, at the last minute quite often, because of exam terror, or sudden eviction, or losing their Home Office appeal and facing deportation. And we, their teachers, are left saying goodbye, looking at a year of slogging our guts out, summarised in a row of 50 or so little words: Pass. Fail. Pass. Pass. Fail. For me, at least, those words are filled with emotion. Grief for the things I planned to do, but didn’t quite manage in the heat of yet another Ofsted year. Guilt for the times I wasn’t focused enough, didn’t get that marking back with enough feedback; would that have made the difference? Grief because, for all it is an overwhelming relief when the end of the year finally comes around, it is also a goodbye, to the groups you have really enjoyed as much as the ones you have struggled with, and I have never been any good at goodbyes.
Loss. Goodbyes. They always seem to be bad things, to be avoided at all costs with Hollywood-style endings and Olaf having “his own personal flurry”. None of the heartbreak of The Snowman for younger generations, please. And don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of happy endings. There is a reason I’ve never made it to the end of Watership Down. But we know that growth, beauty, fulfilment can only happen if some things are lost. The more you prune roses, the more will grow in future. (I think, anyway; though if I’m wrong that explains why my roses keep dying…) Students must finish with us to leave and move on in their lives and achieve whatever they are able to. Children must grow up, grow independent, make choices and mess things up for themselves. Loss surrounds us, from monumental landslides that make life after them unimaginable, through to little disappointments, more hurt pride than moments to mourn. Beautiful moments you don’t want to let go of. Moments that went wrong, and leaving you grieving for what you hoped they would be. Every breath draws in new life and releases what is no longer helpful. Accepting those losses is the only way to release the weight of carrying the world on your shoulders, eternally. But isn’t that so much easier said than done?
How can you accept your children no longer seeing you as the most magical person to ever exist? How can you accept students who once saw you as their salvation seeing you now as the teacher who let them down? How can you accept the passage of time robbing you of health, energy, self identity? How can you accept a political situation that fills you with fear of what may be lost, and anger at the price that will have to be paid by those who have nothing to pay it with? How can you accept the loss of your parents, your partner, your siblings, your children? Grief never disappears. It sneaks into your gut when your shields are down, when you sleep and dream they are still alive, still around, that you are still able to change and correct the situation. And resting underneath the grief, gurgling maliciously, is guilt. Have you let them down? Could you have done more? Do they know you could, should, tried to do more to change things? And then that guilt surges to the surface, forming a suffocating barrier between yourself and acceptance.
Making a choice means closing down opportunities and saying no. If you commit to one course of action you are saying no to all the others. Sometimes it is just a delay, a maybe next time, or an I’ll try that when this other thing changes. But sometimes the choice is absolute. The choice to move countries; the choice to have children; the choice to get married, or to get divorced. Some decisions will forever change the direction your life will take, and you will never be the same person as you were before you made them.
But when we make these big life choices, we rarely pause to grieve for the things we are leaving behind, even as we celebrate the things we are moving towards. Nor do we acknowledge the guilt that can be associated with those choices. Getting married will always be a point where everything changes, and I added to that by moving halfway up the country at the same time. Oops… And then my father died, 3 months after my wedding. Publicly celebrating our intention to support, aggravate, annoy and enhance each other for the rest of our lives was utterly beautiful, and I will never again have a party that is so much fun. But it meant I was giving up my father’s name, changing documents so that he was no longer an explicit part of my identity, as he lay dying (even though we didn’t know that was what was happening). But I had just got married! How could I feel guilt, feel grief, for that? But seriously, looking back, how could I not feel All The Emotions at such a time?
You can have anything. You can’t have everything. And admitting that, whilst being one of the hardest things ever to do, is almost certainly key to surviving everything else, acknowledging the grief, the guilt, and moving beyond both into genuine acceptance.