Can I ask you a favour? If one day you’re out somewhere in public, maybe in a restaurant or in the check-out line at the grocery store, and you see one of your old teachers, will you please go over and say “hello”? I promise you it will make their day. And maybe it will make yours too.
I love to run into kids I’ve taught. It’s wonderful to see them all grown up, with careers and families. Some of my former students are now my friends on Facebook. Like one FB friend, who was a total smart-arse when he was sixteen. Now, in his forties, he has a delightfully wicked, sarcastic sense of humour. His Facebook posts often make me laugh out loud. Some of my former students grew up to be teachers, and I’ve worked with several of them, and call them my friends now. Then there are the kids who I haven’t seen in years. And those about whom I’ve told endless stories to Hubby, or to friends. Every teacher has a treasure trove of those stories.
And then there are the kids who struck a particular chord with me, and about whom I’ve have always wondered: where are they now? Kids like Louise.
Louise was in my senior University level English class several years ago. I loved that kid. She was a handful: smart, funny, honest to a fault, and she hated school. My best memory of Louise was when her class was working on their independent novel study. Each student chose a book from a list of Canadian novels, and worked with a small group of students who were studying the same novel. They met weekly in class to discuss their progress with the book, a different student leading the discussion each week. We called their groups “book clubs”, and encouraged students to bring coffee and snacks to oil their discussion, to make it more like a real book club.
One week, after the discussions finished and the groups had broken up so people could read, or update their reading journal, Louise approached my desk where I was working. She and her group were studying David Adams Richards’ novel Mercy Among the Children. It’s a gripping, heart-wrenching doorstop of a book. She dragged her chair up next to mine, sat very close beside me, and leaned in to whisper in my ear. She said, “Ms. Burpee, I’m telling you right now, if that kid in my book dies, I am going to be SO pissed off at you.”
Just writing that story makes me smile. Something about that novel had caught her by the throat, and she was totally engaged. The girl who hated school, and who let me know it on day one of the semester, loved this book. It doesn’t get much better than that for a teacher.
Then, last week I was out to lunch with my “To Hell With the Bell” group, a bunch of teachers with whom I worked many years ago. Something about our lovely, smiley waitress looked familiar. I said to my friend, “You know, I think I taught that kid.” But then again, maybe not. I mean, when upwards of 150 kids pass through your classroom each year, for thirty years, odds are in a city the size of Ottawa you might have some connection to almost everyone you meet. Either you taught them, or their friend, or their mother, daughter, aunt, or even their next-door neighbour. Like six degrees of separation.
Even so, when the waitress approached again, I said, “Can I ask you, where did you go to high school?” She didn’t quite shriek, but close to it: “Ms. Burpee! It’s me, Louise.” She’d grown up, changed her hair colour, and I had had no idea who she was. She said she recognized me as soon as I came in the door, but hadn’t said anything because she’d assumed that I wouldn’t remember her. “Not remember, you!” And I related to the lunch table my story about her novel study. In subsequent visits to our table Louise said all kinds of stuff that was lovely to hear. That Mercy Among the Children was still her all time favourite book. That she’d eventually gone to university and now had her degree. How she’d hated school. “I remember, ” I said dryly. And how she’d loved English class. Ah. Thanks for that, Louise.
You know, I’m not the only old teacher in my household. One year when I was teaching at a downtown school where Hubby had taught years before, we attended the school’s 75th anniversary celebration together. We sipped white wine out of plastic cups, listened to the school’s jazz band, and chatted with students and staff from my time at the school, and from his time fifteen years previously. One girl in my grade nine class was there with her mum who had also attended the school. She dragged her mother over and introduced me as “her favourite teacher EVER!” Ha. Grade nines, they’re so exuberant. But her mum was more interested in talking to Hubby who she’d recognized as her “favourite teacher ever.” She’d been in his history class, his first year teaching and her last year of high school. How amazing was that!
Then, one night last year Hubby attended the wake for an old friend who he’d played hockey with many years ago. It was a sad event. Except for the fact that the friends of the man’s son were boys… well, men now… who Hubby had taught and coached when they were teenagers. They crowded around him, telling old tales of exploits on the ice, laughing, calling him “Sir”. Saying how right he’d been to try to convince them of the importance of making fitness part of their lives. You know, it’s lovely to hear things like that from former students. To know you had an impact on them.
Okay… I promise… this is my last old teacher-old student story. But it’s my favourite. A few years ago when I was at the grocery store back home in Fredericton, I was sure I saw my old grade five teacher in the check-out line. I gasped and ducked back into an aisle, and Hubby said, “What ARE you doing?” And I kid you not, I actually whispered, “That’s Mrs. Graham my grade five teacher.” “Well, for god’s sake go and say hello,” he said, rolling his eyes. “You’re not in grade five now.”
So I did. I approached her. Tapped her on the shoulder, and said, “Hello, Mrs. Graham. You probably don’t remember me, but I’m Susan Burpee. I was in your class at Marysville school.” The look on her face. She beamed at me; she literally did. And she said in a soft voice, “Of course, Susan, I remember that sweet face of yours.” I grinned and said, “I wonder if you remember how forgetful I was, how I could NEVER remember to bring a new notebook for geography when my old one was filled.” And we laughed. I told her that I’d loved the colour thing we did with reading levels that year, and the badges she’d made by hand to mark how many workbook pages we’d completed. I said I was a teacher now, and she said that was wonderful. And by the time we separated we were both beaming.
Moments like these are wonderful for teachers, and former teachers, and for their former students too. I’m glad Hubby made me talk to Mrs. Graham that day back in Fredericton. How silly I was to hang back from approaching her. And last week, it felt great to hear all those nice things from Louise.
But even more special is that I had the opportunity to tell Louise I’d never forgotten her. That I was proud of her for persevering and getting her degree. That I always knew she had it in her. That it wasn’t just me who gave her something, as she kept saying that day. But she’d given me something too.
So. Next time you’re in that grocery line, or wherever, and you see someone you think might be an old teacher of yours, don’t be shy. Please go and say hello. Trust me they will be thrilled. And you’ll feel good. And maybe when you go your separate ways, you’ll both be beaming.
Now. It is way past my bedtime. I’ve been regaling Hubby with stories all evening, interrupting his hockey game, when I should have been writing. Besides it’s your turn. Any old student-old teacher stories you want to share? Huh?