I was a teacher for 25 years. When I started teaching at a cozy little independent school in the Hudson Valley of New York State, I was a young woman in my mid-twenties, newly married, just out of graduate school. I was so young that the stress of my first year in the classroom gave me pimples. Now stress just gives me insomnia and makes my hair fall out. Not sure which is worse. In any case, whatever the stresses of the job—and there were many—none of it ever mattered. My job fed my soul and there is one reason for that—my students. I taught many youngsters in all those years, but mainly 6th, 7th and 8th graders.
Those are great years, during which kids become the people they will be. Yes, human beings are “themselves” even as babies, toddlers, floppy haired second graders, but in middle school their faces, brains and bodies begin the incredible metamorphosis that gets them to “adult.”
I know because I keep track of my students as best I can. I see the “after” (at many stages) and can remember with vivid clarity the “before.”
At the end of my first year in the classroom, there was none of the history yet. I was a true newbie. And I was surprised—shocked, in fact— at the sense of loss I felt. After graduation, I spent the weekend crying, on and off. I was just starting to understand a thing I call “teacher love.” Like “mother love,” it sneaks up on your heart and takes hold.
Maybe you didn’t realize that we teachers love our students. I don’t mean in the abstract, benevolent way a deity loves the nameless humans who worship her or him. I mean, we are people who love each individual child. We know them very well. We see them. We feel their joy and pain and all those angsty struggles that are played out in a classroom. Through the chaos and busyness and hard work of every day, we absorb, as if through osmosis, a piece of each child’s soul. A teacher can understand a student with greater depth and accuracy than could be predicted by mere facts.
And in a very real way, they absorb us too. That’s why I always knew how important my job was. Not only was I teaching kids how to think critically, write well, and read deeply, I was in relationship with them. And I could really mess a kid up if I wasn’t careful. A teacher may be a human who loves (and praises, disciplines, encourages, and scolds), but we have a hell of a lot of power over those mini-people, and our words, actions, mere looks can stick with them for a lifetime. I know. They’ve told me.
I once had a student equate an approving look from me with a “glance from God.” That sure gave me pause.
So last week I took the commuter train down to the city and met up with a number of my former students at an alumni event on the Upper East Side. Such opportunities to come face to face with these adults, 5, 10, 15, 20 years later, are beyond delicious. And drinking a beer with someone I once had to give permission to go to the bathroom has a charming irony.
My face starts to hurt after the first hour. I can’t keep the happy grin off my silly face. I hear them say, “You have not changed at all!” and want to laugh at the absurdity. What they mean is: “There you are! I’d recognize you anywhere.” I could say the same to them. Kids no more, but surely and positively themselves.
When they were 12, 13, 14, their faces were plain to see. However much time passes, that face is still there. The sloping eyes, the toothy grin. A boy’s soft jaw carved into a strong line. A girl’s awkwardness smoothed out into a woman’s beauty. Bouncy childishness transformed into confident warmth.
I am tall – almost 5’10” – but I spend a lot of time at these parties craning my neck up at men whose heads once rested on my shoulder when the boys they once were gave their teacher a hug. Last week, Brendan, effusive, funny, towered over me. He and his classmate Eliza reminisced with me about the tortures I inflicted on them in my second year of teaching. We laughed. Though I was hard on them, sometimes expecting more than they could deliver, for some reason they remember the experience, and me, fondly. I guess we had fun, too. In 8th grade, we made a movie. Brendan wrote the script and directed. We filmed on location and had a ball, with lots of laughter between takes. Brendan is now an independent movie producer and gives some credit to that experience, 23 years ago, which pleases and humbles me.
A number of my former students teach. That is one of the most lovely testimonials a teacher can receive. Eliza became a teacher and has also become a good friend. Her children now attend the school, and we get together sometimes for dinner, or a cold beer on a summer afternoon. We never run out of things to talk about and I rarely focus on the strange reality that the child I taught to proofread her essays for comma splices is now a mother, a woman, a teacher like me, with outlooks, beliefs, passions, and convictions in common.
I met up with Alex, a talented, soft-spoken young woman whose musical talent blew our minds when she plugged in her guitar 15 years ago, and pulled big sounds out of it with her small hands. Now she supports herself with her music. I chatted with Byron, who sells high-end Manhattan real estate. He was a little kid, it seems, not long ago, but that same grinning boy is now a man, navigating the big city/big kid world with calm confidence.
It’s not even about pride, although I feel plenty of that. It’s simply a sense of fullness, affection, and love. Some of these beloved students have found themselves. Some are still a little lost. Some are happy. Some are in pain. Some share. Some avoid. All are in my heart.
Permele and Emilie come 80 blocks after work to get to the midtown party. They make a bee-line for me in the gallery space and one of them says, leaning in for a hug: “We came to see you.”
I am flooded with feeling as I look at their beautiful, youthful faces and wide smiles and listen to their excited flow of words. I was hoping they’d be there. “No,” I think. “I came to see you.”
The people I once taught interest me, and inspire me, and make me think and laugh because they are fascinating, smart people and I am lucky enough to know them. When I first became a teacher I did not realize that I was making a lifetime commitment to every student I ever taught. I think I’d go to the ends of the earth to share a laugh, a beer, and a good story with any one of them.