Identity Crossroads

crossroads

I sat in a beautiful rural church on a recent warm Saturday. A woman who once lived, had died. I remember her very clearly. She was big of personality, voice, and opinion. She seemed to care not one whit about what anyone thought of her. I admired that. When I knew her, I was in my late 20s, she was maybe 25 years older—old enough to be my mother. But she wasn’t.

Although Katherine was being honored that day, she was not the reason I was there. I was there to honor someone else.

The year I met Katherine was my first year of teaching 6-8th grade English. My 6th grade that year had only 7 students in it. One of them was Katherine’s daughter, Kit.

Teaching was, like babysitting or nannying, both of which I’d also done, a precursor to parenthood. I found out, almost by surprise, how much love is involved. I discovered how much a group of 7 kids in a classroom every day can worm its way in. By the time they were in 8th grade, we were sitting around discussing The Scarlet Letter while everyone took turns feeling my first baby thump around under my sweater.

I taught Kit and her classmates for 3 years. I knew at the time that she would always be a powerful memory for me. There was something about her. She knew herself, I could see. Or was on the way to knowing herself. And she was only 11.

Kit grew up, moved away, began a career as a midwife, married, had children. I stayed in the background, like a good former teacher, proud and admiring, happy for her growing and achieving, but mostly for her happiness. All this thanks to the power of social media, where I walk a fine line between stalking and benevolent awareness. (Thankfully, I have a busy, rich life so stalking is not really an option for me. But I am alertly and fondly cognizant of many, many of my former students, and in touch with them at appropriate interludes, thanks to Facebook and other cyber-land “realities.”)

In the intervening years, between Kit’s 8th grade graduation, at which I cried (I always cry), and the memorial of her mother, I lost mine.

Mother-daughter—it’s a complicated bond. Teacher-student—less so, but also multi-layered, very lasting, and potentially very rich. Kit and I shared what I recently described as a “history of entanglement/anguish/difficulty” with our mothers. The loss of a parent is always hard. The loss of a mother has its own layers of complexity. The loss of a mother with whom the relationship has been fraught, painful, guilty, or in other ways complicated… well, it’s the worst, or at least the most difficult to navigate.

Fast forward 25 years from graduation day for Kit and her 6 classmates, and I received a message. Kit stretching out a hand in my direction and saying, well, lots of things. Part of it was just this: “I find myself wanting to reach out again all these years later and for your support . Although I am no longer a child and need so much less than the 11 to 13 year old me needed. It feels comforting to know you are out there, regardless. Thank you for helping me find my way all those years ago. I will be in the dark for awhile with this grief but less scared knowing you are there if I feel the need to call out.”

When Kit lost her mother. When she reached out to me. When the memories of my own mother’s death in 2004 resurfaced during that exchange with Kit. When I sat in the small church listening to the carefully worded eulogies about a woman—a force of nature who was hard to love but easy to admire (so like my mother). When I heard Kit speak of, and to, her mother, back stiff and eyes dry, her complicated pain a stunning echo of mine, 11 years before. When I saw Kit in the flesh for the first time since 1990, holding her two babies close, a boy and a girl (like mine). When her smiling face reminded me of the eternal grace I always saw in her, even in those awkward adolescent years, and that lovely soul that shines out to this day. When her beautiful face brought back those first years of teaching and all the hard work and the crazy impossible aspirations and the valiant heroism of kids and the bond that forms and the teacherlove.

Sitting in the church I was briefly in a powerful crosswind—a very real moment when several pasts intersected with the present and an idea of the future in which Kit-as-mother, me-as-mother, Kit-as-daughter, me-as-daughter, Kit-as-student, me-as-teacher, sparkled like the facets on a universe-sized crystal.

Not all intersections are where clandestine meetings take place. Sometimes they are just moments in time when our different identities intersect unexpectedly, and immediately stop mattering. When the only thing that does matter is love.

 

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Teacher Love

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.

Emilie and Me

Byron and Me -- cropped