When Old Teachers Meet Old Students.

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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.

John McCrae Secondary School English and Languages department yearbook photo, 2011
Me and my department peeps. JMSS yearbook photo 2011.

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.

My yearbook photo as a teacher at Nepean High School 1992
Ms Burpee caught outside the English office. NHS Yearbook photo, 1992.

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.

Boy's hockey team at Nepean High School, yearbook photo 1972.
Hubby and his hockey team. Newbie teacher, newly formed team. NHS yearbook photo, 1972.

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?

Linking up with #ShareAllLinkUp at Not Dressed as Lamb, and Thursday Favourite Things at Marilyn’s Treats.

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46 thoughts on “When Old Teachers Meet Old Students.”

  1. My eyes are all teared up from this!
    For two years I taught math at a high school in very rural Kenya, as a Peace Corps volunteer. A decade later, I finally had enough money to go back. I had stayed in touch with a couple of students (one whose Christian name was Editor–her illiterate mother had liked the sound of it). Editor wasn’t my best student but she had something–a drive, and also kindness. Of course I visited her and the other student, who was by far outstanding and whose college studies I funded. Driving down the dirt road to my old school I saw a woman struggling to carry a bunch of stuff plus kids, so I stopped to offer her a ride. Her face lit up as we both recognized each other–she was one of my students. I saw others working in town, and every encounter was a delight. And Editor named her daughter after me. A great honor.

    1. Ah, thanks. That’s a wonderful story. I have a good friend who worked teaching in Africa for a a couple of years. His stories are amazing. I wish some of our more “entitled” young people could experience that.

  2. Tears and laughter here. I’ve never run into former teachers, perhaps because I live in a big city and I haven’t lived in the area I grew up in for many years. However, I do often think, with great affection and immense gratitude, of my English teachers when I was about 12 and 13. One was young and enthusiastic and taught me a lot about writing. The other English teacher was older – though probably younger than I am now 😉 – and she inspired a life long love of reading. I’d not been read to as a child and didn’t understand my friends who always had their nose in a book until that teacher. She unlocked the mystery for me and I never looked back.

  3. Such wonderful stories!
    Some of my teachers played such an important role in my life .
    I’m now friends with both my former classteacher and my son’s classteacher-they were, and are, amazing ladies and I’m so happy to have them still in my life. I’m sure that you and Hubby were the same kind of teachers,who have left precious marks in young people lives
    I feel the same about some of my children patients
    Dottoressa

  4. Having attended seven elementary schools, two junior highs and finally, one high school across several continents, the chance of meeting old teachers is not high. However, when I was in my early 40s, I attended an event where to my great surprise I saw my grade 11 English teacher, Mrs Purcell. She was the toughest, most demanding teacher I had ever experienced. She did not suffer fools gladly and had high expectations of her students, but she also had a wry sense of humour, as demonstrated by her amusement when she entered the classroom one morning to find one of the largest boys in our class standing atop his desk with a large, red letter A plastered to his forehead. No need to explain what we were reading at the time.
    Back to the church…at first, I hesitated to approach her, but finally decided to do so. I managed to let her know that while she scared the hell out of me in high school (she laughed), I counted her as the best teacher I had ever had. Her lit class fostered my love of books and eventually led me to completing an English Literature degree at university. I think she appreciated my thanks…but with Mrs Purcell, you never know. 🙂

  5. Yes! My father taught in our local elementary school. He ran into old students all over the place, and he and they were always glad to see each other. One former student was one of the EMTs who came to the house when he fell and needed to go to hospital. He told the ER staff to be sure to “take good care of Mr K–he’s a good man.” One former student from the early 1960s regularly dropped in to visit until Dad died in 2017.

  6. I taught high school home economics classes in nutrition, textiles and human development for 30 years and it brings me so much joy when a former student taps me on the shoulder to say hello or better yet gives a big hug…it touches the soul and is one of the ‘rewards’ of teaching that isn’t covered by the paycheque. Teachers are not always aware of the impact they make on their students’ lives and it is so very special to connect with them in their adult years. Last Saturday, when I was out shopping, twin girls, now beautiful women, sat and waited for me outside the store…both Lauren and Taylor were now in teaching and I so enjoyed listening to the avenue their lives had taken. How lovely that they had waited for me when they could have gone about their busy day…it meant the world!

    1. That’s lovely, Alayne, that those girls waited so they could speak with you. I remember one former student who I met years later saying, “I never forgot your saying”… whatever it was. I just smiled and said thank-you, but I really wanted to say, “I said that?” Ha.

  7. I haven’t run into any of my old pupils and that is probably a good thing because, while I would get the faces, the names would definitely pass me by. And I’ve only been retired four years. But it was the same when I was still teaching – so many times friendly faces would appear at the door. I would know exactly who they were, could chat happily about how they were getting on, but names came there none. A friend of mine is quite the opposite – never forgets, so she might help me out. I got around it by calling them all Darling. Hello, sweet-pea! Dear one, how are you? They didn’t mind because I did it when I was teaching them so they were quite used to it. Even the boys who just rolled their eyes (mentally).

    1. Ha. Names always get me too. Sometimes kids will hail me and if I have no idea what their name is I always say, “Hep YOU! How are you?” I was always bad at remembering names.

  8. I love this post! Teachers have such an impact on us. They either loved or hated me; there really seemed to be no middle. I periodically ran into my favorite high school English teacher. She followed my progress through school and life with great enthusiasm and encouragement, and I always left our encounters beaming. On the other hand, I would also see my 5th grade teacher and avoid her. She made me sit in class one day with gum on my nose after I was caught chewing in class. She also gave my friend and me a C on a group project that we had done most of the work on, but gave another girl who had done absolutely nothing an A. I won’t forget either of them.

    1. Oh… that fifth grade teacher must have been REALLY old school. I pitched a fit at a young teacher in my department one day when I was still teaching because they wanted to assign a student to write lines.

  9. I love this. In a fairly small town I frequently meet former students I advised while an academic advisor at our university. I love remembering them and I love it when they remember me and many times they thank me or tell me something about how my work with them had an impact on their lives.

    High school was really hard for me for a number of reasons and I haven’t kept in touch with any fellow students or teachers in the 50+ years since I graduated. But a few years ago I did reconnect with a couple of people I attended high school with and last year summed up the courage to attend a 60th anniversary of the school so it was a grad reunion for 60 years.

    I was able to reconnect with a couple of my teachers, one was Math which I bombed and I thought I didn’t like him at all. How refreshing to meet him as an adult, and he elderly and retired and discover that he was just a human! He was so funny and related how young he was and had just started teaching and we had a great chat.

    But the best reunion was with my English 12 teacher who I was able to tell how much of an influence she had on my life and university and career choice and how grateful I was. I think I got more out of telling her than she got from hearing it, but it was amazing to see her.

    I had a good laugh with both of them over the fact that we students thought they were so old. My math teacher was 25 and English was 26 when they started teaching at our school! Oh the arrogance of youth and the wonderful perspective of age!

    1. I remember my grade eight teacher telling us it was his birthday and he was turning a quarter of a century. We were all impressed with his longevity! Ha.

  10. I haven’t run into any of my old teachers, but I use my high school Latin teacher as an example quite often. I teach management and leadership skills to Corporate clients, and I often have my attendees go back in time and think of a genuine mentor they had at some point who has made a difference in their life. I use my Latin teacher as an example–she was quite strict and demanding. (Latin teachers are not generally known for being warm and cuddly….) She also made it clear that she had high expectations for me, and that she thought I should set my sites higher than I was doing. She had no obligation to work on my self-image; her only job was to try and teach me Latin; but she had a significant impact on the rest of my life. I was the first person in my family to finish college, eventually going on to my Ph.D.

    I ask people to reflect on their own mentors and what those teachers or coaches or grandparents did to have such an impact on their entire lives. Usually people agree that a person who reaches “mentor status” was quite demanding, and in the process conveyed what high expectations they expect their mentee to live up to. The attendees always enjoy reminiscing about their mentors, but more importantly, it gives them a good philosophical background for how they themselves should manage or lead people.

    1. I know many people remember the teachers who were very strict as having a positive impact on them. Not me. If I feared a teacher they’d never get my best. No matter how hard I tried, I was always too nervous to perform well. Teachers who were kind and smiled a lot and told funny stories had me eating out of their hand. Funny, eh? It’s a good thing that there are lots of different types of people teaching and in leadership roles.

  11. Ann in Missouri

    OMG! Tears here, too.

    There ought to be a Best Blog Posts of the Year competition, and you should enter this post and then thank all of us when you win!

    Just a lovely post, Sue! Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much, Ann. Just like with teaching and not knowing what activity will stick with kids. With blogging I can never tell what post will strike a chord.

  12. Yes, teachers can have such influence. I was thinking recently of my grandfather who was a teacher, a very good one from all accounts. He and my grandmother received cards and letters from former students from all over the world for their fiftieth wedding anniversary, although he had spent most of his teaching life in small country towns in Australia. My favourite story is from after he retired. The son of neighbours was ill and confined to bed for a whole term. My grandfather offered to go in for a few hours each day to help him keep up with his school work. This was not received enthusiastically by the son, who was an indifferent student and whose ambition was to leave school and get a job as soon as he reached official leaving age of 15 the following year. However, Grandfather realised he was bright and gave him such confidence in his abilities and potential that the boy went on to become Dux of his school, the first in his family to go to university and later a physicist with the Nasa Space Program in America. A few weeks of good teaching at the right time changed the course of his life.
    Lilibet

  13. Dear Mrs. Burpee, I have this amazing old teacher who’s blog I actually keep up to date with… ok sorry bad joke. But in all seriousness, do all the teachers you run up to excitedly ACTUALLY remember who you are?? Or they of course have to pretend they remember you to make you feel good, right? That’s my question. My mother used to run into my dearly beloved grade five teacher or his wife often and every time she would tell him how great he was and how he changed my life! Sadly I never ran into him. I do still run into old university professors on occasion since I still live in the city where I went to university. It’s fun seeing them at Costco or being able to honk at them when I see them walking down the street like I did one day – though, not quite as fun as seeing elementary school teachers who knew you when you were a wide-eyed little kid!

    1. We-ell, Miss Taylor… I’m not sure. I was the last of the three Burpee girls who went through the elementary school in my small town. Maybe that made me more memorable? Or maybe she thought I was one of my sisters?? I of course never forget the name of a former student… Jane… I mean Sarah. 🙂

  14. I moved to a big city after I finished school so have never seen any of my old teachers or those I went to school with. For me school was the worst time of my life so I never wanted to go back. Part of the problem was that I am dyslexic and in the 1960s in Australia teachers, I realise now, weren’t trained to deal with me but at the time it was incredibly traumatic.

  15. Wendy from York

    Post war Britain had a baby boom & at my first school , for up to age 11yrs , there were over 40 pupils in each class . It meant there was no time for personal attention from the teachers & if you didn’t ‘get it ‘ you could easily get left behind . I used to gaze out of the window wishing for freedom . I always loved reading though & sometimes think my true education began when I left school . Nevertheless I enjoyed your post & there are some great comments .

    1. I remember a few sunny days in June staring out the window longing for summer and to be outside. Then my mum saying in the summer … get your nose out of that book and go outside. 🙂

  16. Sue L. Petersen

    My Dad was a principal and a teacher in our town for more than 40 years. He knew everyone and when he retired he never forgot their names. My Dad also became my teacher in high school. There were two required classes that most students took as a freshman. It was a learning experience for both of us. He was a great teacher and I saw how students respected him. Twenty years after he retired, they named the gymnasium after him. He was still alive and able to accept the award given to him at a banquet. He has been dead many years but people still remember my Dad.

    1. Teaching in a small community can be wonderful. So often in a big city teachers and students never run into each other again. Ottawa being an exception, I guess.

  17. First, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the photo. Seeing you holding Pride and Prejudice made me think of The Jane Austen Book Club. (Do you know that movie?) I’ve seen that movie umpteen times (and ditto, at least two incarnations of the film version of Pride and Prejudice). And… it is the one Jane Austen that is by my bed (sometimes I just like picking it up and reading a bit).

    All that aside, teachers rock! Of COURSE students remember their favorite (life-changing, identity-changing) teachers! My former gentleman friend is/was a teacher. It always cracked me up how often we would be out somewhere doing something utterly ordinary (food shopping, running an errand at a mall) and someone would stride up to him and offer a very hearty hello.

    It’s a fabulous profession, my friend. Grossly underappreciated and undervalued.

  18. I haven’t run into any former teachers but do see some of my oncology doctors and nurses… 10 breast cancer surgeries and eight rounds of chemo so that’s not surprising. It’s often a tearful reunion, on my part, because they literally saved my life in one way or another. xoxox, B

  19. Great post Sue. I always love bumping into old students. I can’t always remember their names but it is fun to see them. Hope you had a great birthday !!!

  20. Hubby and I are just back from a trip to Europe and I’m catching up on blog posts that I missed. This one hit a chord. While in Paris, we spent a morning touring Montmartre and having lunch with a former student of mine who’s been living there for the past five years!

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