I’m that teacher, the one who always breaks down at graduation. It’s become a running joke between my husband and me, my dragging him to school once a year so I can cry shamelessly on his shoulder as he makes awkward small talk with teenagers he’s never met. It’s a joke with my students, too: “Make sure you bring some tissues, Ms. Bradshaw!” I say I’ll be stocking up at Costco.

At some point I realized that it’s more than humor for them, though. Some fixate on the phenomenon, asking me again and again, “You really cried last year? Did you cry a lot? Are you going to cry for us too? You’re really going to be sad?” Others laugh so loudly, tease so ruthlessly, that I know it is more than amusement they are feeling. For some reason, my crying is a big deal.

Originally I was surprised, even a bit indignant. Didn’t my students already know how much I Cared about them? Why should my emotions at their departure be so astonishing? Of course I was going to be sad!

I’m not sure, but I think I get it now. There is a difference between “I Care: look how much I do for you” and “I Care: look how much you do for me.” For my students, the former is nothing new. They have heard the rhetoric about “disadvantaged” populations and “urban” public schools; they have been the place nearby companies send their employees on community service days. For both better and worse, they know they are seen as a good cause to which decent people give. What has not been made as clear to them, perhaps, is just how much they give to others.

Though I am always happy and proud to see my students graduate, I am also inevitably—and selfishly—sad to see them go. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing.