A Letter To Your Teacher On The Last Day Of School: Ryen Gailey’s Senior Column
In December on my last day of student teaching, I was overwhelmed with the amount of love and appreciation I was showered with. On that day, saying goodbye to my 17 kindergarten students seemed like the hardest thing I had ever needed to do. How could I possibly say goodbye to the kindest, funniest, and cutest children who brought me so much happiness day in and day out?
If you know anything about me, you know I’m a crier. But on that day, through the tears, I sat in a circle with my students and tried to remind them (and myself, quite honestly) that it’s OK to be sad when you say goodbye to someone or something. It’s OK to have big emotions, and it’s OK to cry.
And you know why that is?
Because goodbyes are hard. They aren’t meant to be easy. As cliché as it sounds, the harder the goodbye just means how great someone, something, or someplace, was to you. Saying goodbye to my first real class of students was incredibly difficult, but saying goodbye to Penn State and the people who helped make this place home over the past four years might just be harder.
Two of my students gifted me a book on my last day titled “A Letter From Your Teacher On The Last Day Of School” by Shannon Olsen. It had this little note inside. It’s an incredibly sweet book, and also what inspired me for the title and gist of this column.
In case you don’t spend your free time reading and collecting children’s books as I do, here’s the Cliff Notes version of what’s the book about: Essentially, it’s a letter from a teacher to her students summarizing the year they’ve had, all the memories they’ve shared, what they’ve learned, and what they’ve overcome.
I think about this book and how it can relate to me on my last day of school as a college student. I think about all of the things I’ve learned while in college, where I started, and where I’m at now.
I started here as a freshman who was proudly following the footsteps of my dad, sister, cousins, and aunts and uncles who came before me and are proud Penn State alumni themselves. In a school as massive as this, I somehow quickly came to realize that State College truly did feel like home for me. Living in Curtin Hall brought me the absolute best memories and the best friends in the entire world.
Whether it was because I was tactfully planning prank wars alongside my friends, having competitions of who could fit the most cheese balls in their mouths, or making Rice Krispie treats in my dorm at 2 a.m., I think about my time spent in that old, nasty dorm and truly, wouldn’t change it for the world. It brought me friends, memories, and enough joy and laughter to last a lifetime.
Freshman year was also the year that I joined Onward State. Honestly, applying for Onward State was an easier decision than choosing what school to attend. I have my two favorite Onward State alumni in this world to thank for that: my sister Caitlin and my cousin Emma. I don’t think there are enough words in this world to summarize how much this blog and all it’s brought to me truly means to me.
As an education major with absolutely no plans to go into the world of journalism, I joined Onward State because I love writing and telling stories, but that’s not why I stayed. I stayed because of the people. I stayed because of the times we’ve sung at Onward State socials until 2 a.m. and the cops have shown up for noise complaints. I stayed because of the times we’ve all wandered to Yallah after formals. I stayed because I never realized you could have a group of people that felt like family almost as much as the people you’re biologically related to.
Every single person on Onward State’s staff has amazed and inspired me. The talent, dedication, skill, and creativity of every single staffer have been nothing short of extraordinary. I can’t wait to be a washed-up alum very soon reading and reposting every single story and picture you all produce.
Sophomore year presented itself with a lot of firsts for me: my first apartment, my first real teaching experience, and, as I’m sure all of us can say, my first (and hopefully only) time needing to have such an amazing year cut short due to a global pandemic. As much as that sucked, candidly, it came at a time in my life when I really needed to be home. I needed to be with family.
What we thought was just going to be a few weeks at home turned into a few months, but we found joy in all the chaos. We had family cornhole tournaments, trips to the shore in the middle of the week, dance parties, and so much more. For the four of us, as life goes on and my sister and I grow up, I think back on this time now as an unexpected gift because it’ll likely end up as the last time we all permanently live under one roof together.
This time still reminds me to this day that when everything in this world is scary, unpredictable, and everchanging the one thing that will remain constant in my life is family. Always.
To Caitlin, my big sister and my absolute best friend in the entire world, I could never thank you enough for letting me vent to you into all hours of the night, call you every two hours (literally), and have endless sister sleepovers. To mom and dad, thank you for letting me follow my dreams and for supporting me every step of the way. Thank you for being the perfect shoulder to cry on in life’s toughest moments but also for being my favorite people on this planet to laugh and smile with. Thank you for the surprise visits, the FaceTime calls, and the daily goodnight texts. Dad and I will always reign supreme as family cornhole champions though.
The last few years of college have flown by, but they taught me some of life’s greatest lessons. Notably, it’s faster to order Chick-fil-A in-store than in the drive-thru, the best Gaffeoke song is “Someone Like You” by Adele, and it’s always more fun to sing and dance like nobody’s watching at any bar than to just sit back and just observe.
But, if you’re me, you’re probably going to be at the front of the stage. And in that scenario, I guess literally everyone behind you IS watching you, but I clearly don’t mind the potential embarrassment.
For the past two years, I’ve considered my home to be a quaint little house on South Gill Street. If you’ve ever wandered over this way, yes, we’re the house with the Joe Paterno and Guy Fieri cardboard cutouts in our window, plus the newly added random play kitchen on our porch. The Gill Street legacy runs deep in my family, so it was a given for me to end up here at some point in my college career.
I’m forever thankful for this place, the people who’ve lived here, all we’ve been through together, and how we’ve somehow managed to come out stronger on the other side. This place would not have felt like home had it not been for us collectively binging bad reality TV shows together, sharing Friendsgiving meals and taco nights, and laughing until we cried all along the way.
Over the past four years, I’ve learned the greatest lessons through just reflecting on my own actions and decisions and trying to better myself. I learned it’s OK to ask for help when you need it, it’s OK to prioritize and stand up for yourself, it’s OK to wear your emotions on your sleeve, and it’s OK to not be OK.
College has blessed me with the absolute best time of my life, but also some of the most challenging times. And in those moments, it’s taking care of yourself, surrounding yourself with people who build you up and support you, and always keeping your head up that’s important.
So, in my letter to myself on my last day of school, I would congratulate myself and tell myself, “Wow, you made it.” I would tell myself the same exact thing I told my kindergarten students — that goodbyes are hard, but every door must come to a close in order for another to open.
Penn State and State College will always feel like home to me, and I know I’ll be back, probably decked out in White Out suits because I can never resist my dad’s antics.
But this specific door and this chapter are coming to a close, and that’s OK. Whatever comes next, I just hope it brings me a fraction of the joy I’ve experienced in the last four years. After all, life is better off with a smile when you’re dancing like nobody’s watching.
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About the Author
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The Onward State crew headed to the Motor City for some football, pizza, and a swing set overlooking Canada.
Tickets for the event will go on sale 10 a.m. Friday, December 1.