This past week, I thought a lot about love.

When I made the decision to go into teaching about 5 years ago, I never could have imagined where that choice would lead me. An all-girls boarding school was certainly not on my radar. Erda, I had never heard of. I didn’t know what RTCs were. All I knew was that I enjoyed talking at people about things I found interesting. Teaching seemed as logical a field as any to have that opportunity.

Over the last 4 years, I have periodically had moments where it very poignantly occurred to me that I never could have dreamed of experiencing such a thing as part of my professional career. For one, I certainly never thought that I’d cry at work, for reasons other than feeling mentally or emotionally crushed and overwhelmed, to the point of suffering a breakdown. I couldn’t have fathomed that regularly I’d be moved to tears by the people I work with, and the students I serve.

I always had the vague hope that I’d feel like I’d end up doing something that mattered. But I certainly never could have imagined that my career would end up being the most meaningful thing in my life. I think I suspected that teachers (who really cared) probably felt like they made an impact on the lives of their students. But I don’t think that it was really possible for me to fully comprehend what it actually feels like to know that you’ve made that impact, and that you’ve been able to help students care more, not only about learning, but about the things going on around them, and making the world a little bit better.

I really didn’t think that a job devoid of the “Sunday afternoon Monday-dreads” was actually a thing that existed. Or that work could be a place I never loathed to be. Or that I’d love what I did enough to actually want to dedicate time and energy outside of what my contract required, to better connect with those I serve—that I’d get to go on camping and hiking adventures, and watch the power of nature’s sublime affect students to the core, helping them in their process of healing.

This past week—where we had around 20 students graduating, as well as our annual alumni event—quite vividly embodied every aspect of the above mentioned “unimaginables.” I don’t know that I’ve ever felt more emotionally exhausted and overwhelmed. I had to sit through graduations where the power of the language employed by student’s in describing the tragedy, beauty, and triumph of their journeys brought me to tears, over and over. Multiple times, I had to attempt to convey what some of these students have meant to me, and how proud I am of them, through a voice rendered quite ugly by whatever weird thing physiologically happens to me when I cry.

I got to sit down in the grass, on our beautiful campus, and have the loveliest conversations with former students. I was able to listen to their tales of failure and triumph, their struggles and successes. It was so wonderful to be able to celebrate the remarkable lives of these students I love so dearly, through something as simple as a healthy conversation.

I think I was able to fully realize this weekend that, to me, what everything comes down to is love. Love is the crux of their success and ours. None of what we do works without love. Because I love my students, I am willing to pour my heart and soul into teaching. Because I love them, I am willing to spend my own time taking them into nature, and connecting with them on a deeper level. Because of love, family teachers share their families, and never give up on even the most difficult, pain-filled girls. Because of love, each Alpine employee—no, family member—pours his and her heart into the healing of these phenomenal girls.

Because of our love, these girls are able to remember how to love themselves. In many cases, they are able to love their families again. Because of love, families do the hardest thing imaginable—they send their daughters to live among strangers. But because of our love, they are able to leave them here, where they quickly realize that they can trust us to take care of their precious children.

When I tell outsiders that I love my job, I honestly don’t think that they can really comprehend what I mean. In this case, love doesn’t just mean that I really enjoy what I do, relative to what I’ve done in the past, or what I might otherwise do. When I say I love my job, I mean it in the same sense that I love my family, and dear friends—that Alpine, and everyone who is a part of this big, crazy family, has a special and very real place in my heart.

Ultimately, love is what has brought all of us together, and love is what will keep the ray of light, hope, and beauty that is Alpine, ever growing and improving the world—one girl, and one heart at a time.