Running into Former Students

A couple of weeks ago, I ran into two former students—at a bookstore, no less, which truly warmed the very cockles of my English teaching heart. Both were students I’d taught as seventh graders and then again as eleventh graders in regular public schools (this was prior to my getting into teaching in an alternative setting).

It’s always good to run into these former students from time to time to see that they’ve transitioned into adulthood and managed at least some of the attendant challenges, but it’s especially nice when one takes the time to tell you what an impact you had on them. They come and go through our classrooms so quickly year after year, and we never really know if we’ve actually helped them, taught them anything lasting. It’s almost a gamble and we teachers have to have faith that what we do will pay off somehow, someway we’ll likely never see.

One of the two I ran into made it a point to tell me just how important I was to her as an English teacher and debate coach. She told me she probably never would have gone to college if it hadn’t been for me. That surprised me coming from a kid I remember as being smart, studious and motivated, but then I grew up in an environment where college was an expectation and it’s an easy trap for a teacher—or anyone, really—to assume that we all grow up with the same expectations. Still, whatever I did or said in class must have had some effect and for that I’m grateful because we don’t always know what lessons our kids are really learning in our classes. We hope they’re learning what we’re teaching, but they learn other things too: lessons they take from how we interact with them, speak to them, and treat them. How we approach our subjects too.

Education is an endless process of discovery and there is joy and humor in that—fun, even. Sometimes it’s tough getting there, but the rewards are so great, so fulfilling, that kids who see that in their teachers can’t help but be inspired to some degree. Whether that inspiration leads to college or just getting tomorrow’s essay in on time, it all leads in the same direction and our job is to push those kids a little farther down that path to wherever they want to go.

As educators, I think the most important part of the job is to pass along the love of learning to our students and then teach them the tools they’ll need to teach themselves the things they want and need to know. I’m always telling kids that my job isn’t to solve their problems for them but to help them figure out how to solve them on their own.

It was nice to hear those words from that former student, now an adult with her own family (yet still referring to me as Mr. Brush, as they always do), especially since she was among the very first students I ever taught. I remember that first class on that first day, thinking Good Lord, what if I teach them everything I know and it only takes 10 minutes… what do I do with the other 186 hours and 40 minutes for which I’ve got them this year? I still remember those seventh graders staring back at me—I doubt any teacher ever forgets the kids he teaches in that terrifying first year—and I never would have thought I’d learn as much from them as (I hope) they learned from me.

I guess I knew more than I thought and somehow that love of learning, that curiosity, that drives me must have rubbed off on a few of them. That’s always been and probably always will be the most important thing I teach. But then, you don’t really teach that do you? You have to live it.

8 thoughts on “Running into Former Students”

  1. That is awesome. I hope you are able to inculcate a love of learning in some of the students in your new gig, too, though I imagine it’s a bit more challenging there.

  2. That reminds me…

    I was down at the local motorcycle shop the other day looking for something with chrome on it when I noticed one of the other customers was watching me. At least I assumed it was another customer. Sometimes the difference in length of hair and amount of leather between staff and clients is difficult to discern.

    As I made my way to the front of the shop to pay for my purchase, the person came over and said, “Don’t I know you?” Conversations that start out that way seldom end well for me because I usually get mistaken for someone who owes money, or who never called, (that was before I was married) or who had occasion to insult a member of the speaker’s immediate family. My usual strategy is to delay saying anything at all until I can get an idea of what my interlocutor has in mind. This time I didn’t have to wait though because he blurted out, “I know. You’re a teacher.”

    OK, there are some things you shouldn’t call a person standing in the middle of a motorcycle shop surrounded by men who may not have had the best educational experience growing up. Men who may be armed. Luckily, no one was close enough to hear. I steered the stranger over towards the clothing section where there were even less people and admitted that yes, I was a teacher. “I knew it, he said. “You taught at my high school. I was in your class. My name’s John but they called me JB back then.”

    It turns out I did remember him, vaguely. He was one of those kids who sat in the back, never made much trouble, but was never really connected to what was going on either. I remembered him as being a fairly bright student, but not really one to put himself out very much. As we talked he confirmed that memory, but mentioned that one of the reasons he hadn’t gotten excited about school was that “everything was the same.” He told of daily worksheets in one class, quizzes every Wednesday in another and a teacher who wore the same shirt every Friday (that wasn’t me).

    One of the reasons he remembered my class was that, in his view, things didn’t seem so scripted. “Remember that time you read Beowulf to us while you were wearing that helmet with the horns on it? Or the time the whole class wrote a story together? Or the time you convinced Linda Faghretti that Edgar Allen Poe was still alive and living down the street?”

    I had to admit I really didn’t remember most of those things, but he did and the occasional surprise, the out of the ordinary is what he had carried with him all of these years. It hadn’t been enough to overcome the inertia that his other classes had given him, but it was enough that he looked forward to coming. And apparently some of what I had been trying to teach him had stuck. “I still think Fall of the House of Usher is a great book,” he said.

    We chatted up old times for a while, then said our good-byes. On the way home I was thinking about those days, pre-NCLB, pre all the pressures on K-12 teachers today to be exactly what had turned John off to education—the same. I wondered if I went back into a secondary classroom today could I still be the same teacher I had been back then. I doubted it.

    As the new year starts I hope you all will remember the JB’s of the world. They need to be taught by people, not programs.

    Something I wrote for the local English Teacher Newsletter a few years back.

    Ironicus

    1. Wow, thanks for that sharing that. I think that that boredom John describes is one of the real killers and hard to fight in today’s educorporate climate (as you frequently and aptly put it). One of the things that helps me is to remember that I was a lot like John. I hated school. I was bored and couldn’t wait for it to end. So today, I try not to bore myself in class. Usually if I’m enjoying myself my kids will too. Mostly.

      Thanks again for the story and… motorcycles? My whole image of IM just shifted. The badass factor has gone up substantially :)

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