I love teaching for so many reasons, but I get a particular thrill when I hear from a student who I taught long ago. At this point, I have many students who are grown adults with careers and partners and even children of their own. Sometimes my students write me notes or find me on social media, and every once in a while I run into them out in the world. In fact, when I was in labor with Austin ten years ago, I was triaged with another woman who was also in labor. “Ms. Clark?” she asked, using my maiden name from my earliest teaching days, and I turned and realized that she was my former student! I reached out my hand to her and we laughed about the coincidence that we were running into each other in the labor and delivery floor of the hospital. (I mean – what are the chances? And yes, this story is completely true. How does this stuff happen to me? At least no one can say my life has been boring.)
In any case, last week I heard from a former student. “You might remember me from your 9th grade history class back in 2012-2013,” the student began, “and now I’m trying to organize an event for the class of 2016 to virtually catch up with some of our teachers.” Would I be interested in attending?
“Of course I remember you, and of course I’d love to do this!” I wrote back immediately. What fun it would be to see this class.
I started to think about how much had transpired since I last taught this group. It’s an exercise in time travel, in a way. Now I teach seniors, but when these students were in school, I taught mostly Freshmen. I could picture their year so vividly in my mind – where the kids sat in each of the classes and how it felt to teach 14 and 15-year-olds with two small kids at home. In fact, that was the year that I had to bring Austin to school a couple of times, and I remember teaching about trench warfare during World War I as Austin crawled under the PowerPoint at the front of the room.
The students from that class were Juniors when I gave birth to Tommy, so they likely know that I have three kids, but they missed much of my life afterwards. Do they know what has happened since the spring of 2016? Do they know about Shawn’s illness, his death, my role as a widow and a single parent, my writing? Do they know about Chris, about how big my kids are now, about who I’ve become?
Probably they know about as much about me as I know about them, which is to say: they likely know very little. How much have I ever really kept up with students after they went out into the world?
My role as a teacher means that I am a guide, of sorts. I push students to think, I counsel them to keep trying, I encourage them to push beyond their comfort zones. But I do not tell them how to live their lives. I merely hope that what I’ve done in the classroom influences them in a positive way. I cross my fingers and then I teach a new batch of kids the next year, hopeful that I can do better than the year before.
Almost a decade ago, when I taught this group of students, I had so many hopes and dreams for them – and also so many hopes and dreams for my own life. I was going to watch my kids grow up, and maybe even have another baby. I was going to work my way up to a job as an administrator. I was going to be married to Shawn, and we were going to go to some fancy parties thrown by people that he knew from work. That was the plan.
Of course, that’s not the way it went. Yes, I got to watch my kids grow up, but they have also taken their own paths in the world. I didn’t get the job as an administrator, but that meant that I ended up writing more as a freelancer and doing more with this blog. And Shawn got sick. By late 2017, I wasn’t so concerned about attending fancy parties with Shawn. I just wanted him to live.
It’s been three and a half years since then. I am still teaching in the same school, but many other parts of my life have changed. Back in 2012, I had a number of thoughts about how my life would look – and I was often wrong about lots of them. I’m sure I was also wrong about what I thought would happen in the lives of most (and maybe all!) of my students. I guess I’ll find out when I see them all virtually in a few weeks. I’m sure at least some of them will surprise me.
I hope none of them are deeply suffering. But for all the other revelations – well, I can’t wait to hear about those. I’ve come to appreciate those happy and unexpected surprises even more than I once did.
This post resonated with me on so many different levels. High school teacher here, fellow widow as of March 2020. Teaching this year has been awful, and at the same time a needed respite as my young children and I adapt to our new reality at home. My students have been struggling, I have been struggling. But knowing that we have each other to lean on reminds me what I love about my profession. And yes, hearing from former students brings such joy! Thank you for putting all of this into words.
Hang in there Rachael. I can imagine that your husband cherished many of those things about you that make you love spending your days interacting with rooms full of teenagers. And while they may not know it yet, those tender hearts you work with-too many of whom are already dealing with great sorrows-will remember watching you endure, and prevail. Maybe you are giving them their first glimpse of an adult who is also someone they can recognize as a fellow human, a person they need to care for. If they remember nothing else from your classes, they will remember that. It won’t show up on the standardized test, but it may be the most important lesson of all. You’re not alone!
I love this reply – and I agree with Greg!