It is that time of year. Soon, the lean days of Lent will have passed. I will blink and the new leaf growth will have turned a deeper, settled shade of green. The padlock has not yet been removed from the neighborhood pool, and I find myself asking the same question once again: How do I finish the school year well?
Usually, that question has a qualifier. How do I finish well when…I’m near the breaking point with a student (or his disgruntled mother)? If I’m heavily pregnant? After a loss in the family? This year, there’s no qualifier. It’s just a year. Without the qualifier, I am given to wonder: what does it mean to finish well?
Last week our co-op met for the end of our spring term. These are the days when oak pollen is oppressive, and one of my children has a frightening initiation into the world of allergy-induced breathing troubles. After a sleepless, breathless night, I buzzed around him for days with steroids and a nebulizer. His chest ached from coughing, and there was no way he could be under the oak trees for five hours for our outdoor co-op.
All’s well that ends well. I passed off my teaching notes and my other children and spent the most peaceful morning I had had in months catching up on my academic work. But still, it irked me. I wanted to “finish well.” I wanted to have a concluding discussion about justice in the life of Cato the Younger. I wanted to give the final corrections before recording the Shakespeare scene my class was memorizing. But mostly, I guess I just wanted to feel finished.
When we think of finishing anything, we usually turn to a race metaphor. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to run the race, laying aside sin and hindrances while taking up patience. I’m not sure, however, how helpful this is as a metaphor for ending the school year well. Races have clear start and finish lines; guiding students to grow in wisdom and virtue does not. Showing up to class, teaching required skills and content, and turning in grades (laboring always over the comments section) – these represent a clear finish line. But fulfilling a contractual obligation is not the same as finishing well. Now that I’m homeschooling, it’s all rather murky. Our state homeschool regulations are generous. I choose my curriculum, my schedule, and my goals – how do I know if I’m done at all, much less done well? There’s not even a line to cross.
I offer, as a substitute, no metaphor at all. Instead, I propose a thought from St. Augustine. Addressing Christian teachers, Augustine exhorts, “And thus, though Wisdom was Himself our home, He made Himself also the way by which we should reach our home.” He encourages us to view sanctification as a journey to our native land, describing our way as “not a way that lies through space, but through a change of affections.”
Perhaps I miss the mark not in misunderstanding what it means to finish well but to suppose I am finishing at all. For those of us afflicted with box-checking, task-oriented natures, there is a deep desire to feel finished. But underneath that desire is the deeper desire to enter into God’s rest. The most important work of all has already been finished, and our way is to move through and to it. Augustine maintains, “For a man is never in so good a state as when his whole life is a journey towards the unchangeable life, and his affections are entirely fixed upon that.”
This is the time of year for what I half-jokingly refer to as “escape planning.” Escape planning is planning for next year, believing that the curriculum I choose or the way I restructure our schedule will allow me to miraculously reach this point of the year without fatigue or regrets. It presumes that magically next year I will do what I am not currently doing. Escape planning chases a chimera.
Every year, there are gaps. There is finite time and resources. Some of these gaps I have chosen mindfully: things I would have done in a perfect world but chose to deprioritize this year. Some of the gaps just happened, because I chose a method or materials that were impractical or because I was lazy. These are always the areas of fatigue and regret. I think, “I’ll just finish this year, then…”
There is a saying, “begin as you mean to continue.” I propose continuing as you mean to continue. Complete the school year as you mean to continue. Do now, little by little, what you mean to do next year. Five or ten minutes a day for six weeks adds up to a great deal, especially for young students. It also reminds us that the end of the school year is not a destination, Wisdom is. The faithful way is not a series of races with grand finish lines but small daily acts, on and on, until the true end, when faith shall be made sight.
 Augustine. Great Books of the Western world, ed. Mortimer Adler et al, vol. 16 (Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1993), 707.
 Ibid, 708.
 Ibid, 709-710.