This weekend, I received a note – a very nice one, in fact – from a former student of mine. In it, she updated me on her life, wished me well, and tossed out the idea of a possible get-together over coffee. I wrote back, updating her on a couple of my own life events since we’d last met, and asked her to keep in touch.
It was short, direct, and sweet. And it blew me away.
One of the “sad things” about teaching – I’d say that this is especially true when you teach at a collegiate level, but in retrospect, grade level isn’t much of a factor – is that we spend a tremendous amount of time getting to know our students. If we’re lucky, those students come in as fresh-faced innocents, with nary a clue as to what they’ll want to do tomorrow, much less four years from now. We’ll be there when they have questions, whether about this morning’s lecture, or some major life decision, and we’ll remain when they’ve reached that point when they think that they know the answers to all of life’s questions. But that “sad part” I’d referenced, is that by the time one gets to the point where one could consider that student a friend, they’re ready to leave – spreading their wings as they seek out newer adventures and Life’s promise.
It’s the Circle of Life in motion, I guess.
When I was in high school (eons ago), my favorite teacher – my Latin teacher (amo, amas, amat, everyone) – told me that when he first started teaching, he’d received a thank you letter from a student some weeks after graduation. The student praised the teacher’s abilities and for just being a stand-up guy. It was completely out of the blue, and it both surprised and humbled my teacher. He kept that letter for years. Then, if I recall the story correctly, he’d learned by accident that the young man who’d written to him had been killed in Vietnam.
Once I’d graduated from high school, I wrote him a letter myself. This was the man who’d pushed my interest in the classics, and introduced me to Barnes and Noble (which was strictly mail order in those days, courtesy of their quarterly catalog). He lent his voice to those of my parents and after much pleading, was partially successful in talking me out of a career in boxing – true story – and he got me to appreciate the idea of patience, even in the face of insanity. I can’t think of any other teacher (save for my parents) who had as great an influence on pre-adult me.
I even visited him a couple of times – at least until my old high school changed their visitation policy, making it nearly impossible to enter the campus. Oddly enough, I’ve since learned that one of my favorite students also studied under him when she was in high school.
Everyone, it seems, has had some teacher in their past who was very instrumental in helping them become the person they are today. It’s weird, at least for me, to hear someone say that they’ve never had a good teacher, as it would seem that by interacting with so many between the ages of five and 18, there’d be at least one good educator. But I rarely hear educators talk about students in that manner.
I won’t lie to you: I love my students. They crack me up. They also aggravate me. Some days they make me thrilled to be an educator, and on other days, they make me question my choice of occupation. But when the smoke clears at the end of the day, I do love them.
I could go on about how I love their expressions when I teach them something new, or clarify something that they’ve “kind of” known, but were too embarrassed to ask about previously. Or how honored I am when they ask for a private meeting to seek my advice on something that matters to them. How most just want someone to listen to them – their fears, their hopes, their plans – without judgment or condemnation. What they don’t know, however, is that I learn just as much from them, as they do from me.
See, my students – like the author of this weekend’s note – have made me a better person, and for that, I’m truly thankful.
That’s probably why I love what I do.
So if you’ve had a special teacher in your life, drop them a line to tell them how you’ve been. Doesn’t have to be a long epic; just let them know that you’ve turned out okay. Meet them for coffee, if you can. Let them know that they played a role in helping you become what you are today.
It just might make their week.