The Summer of Former Students

In my younger years, I approached public places with ninja-like exactitude and stealth: upon entering the coffee shop or restaurant or grocery store or music festival, I would scan the premises, head on a swivel, quickly seeking to identify potential conflict. Often I would take to wearing a hat slammed low and be sure to bear no identifying insignia so as to maintain a low profile. I always wanted to see them before they saw me, so that I could always control the interaction.

Using these ancient techniques, I was a shadow. My first success came as a student-teacher. Even after a couple of beers with my friends, I spotted one a hundred yards away. She saw me only when I was ready to reveal myself—a sly smile and a hello—and she stood agape, embarrassed that her teacher caught her being unruly in public.

Then there was a time when my wife somehow cajoled me into a blissful Saturday morning at Ikea. I forget what we were looking for—I somehow always do—but I knew it must have been early August, because I found myself in close proximity to not one but TWO of my former students, recently graduated seniors, who were shopping with their entire proud families for dorm furniture. With one path through Ikea, winding through the entire store, you can imagine the level of subterfuge I had to employ to stay beneath the radar, once even lowering my standards so far as to acting like I was interested in a new flower vase for the living room.

Other times I have been less successful in maintaining my cover, stoking my most paranoid fears: the public embarrassment, the loss of my privacy to simply walk free in the world. Once I had just left a bar on Friday afternoon happy hour when an angry “Mr. Jenkins” bellowed across the street. When tone led to recognition—a student from year one, who I threw out of class about once a week—I actually thought he wanted to throw down. Luckily, he was friendly, doing well, surprisingly happy to see me. Another more surreal incident happened in the aisle of a grocery store, where a former student stood in shock, pointing and shouting at me. “I know you!” he exclaimed. “I know you!” Others began to put down their Corn Flakes and watch the spectacle—reminiscent of the Madison Square Garden scene in Coming to America. But the student couldn’t remember my name, so he kept repeating himself, and then I realized that this could end very badly if, people thought his flashback were for something more traumatic than a weekly grammar quiz. “It’s me,” I whispered. “Mr. Jenkins. I taught you in 2nd period 9th grade English five or six years ago.” And I walked my basket to the front and hurriedly left the amused public display.

(Sorry about the crappy audio.  It was the only file I could find.)

Age and progress have tempered this paranoia. I used to guard the privacy religiously, but so much has changed since I first entered a classroom. For one, I’m older and am less worried about students actually wanting to hang out with me and be my friend. More importantly, however, is rise of social media. Though I once swore I would never broach that wall, I’m now connected with scores of former students.   I get to see pictures of them graduating and having kids. I see them making asses of themselves. I see them open, both intelligent and witty and willfully misinformed; and sometimes they even share things with me saying, “I thought of you when I saw this,” which always warms the heart. Even if it is only a digital connection, they are no longer static memories; they are growing dynamically into people, and I still get to see them change every day.

But more importantly, I suppose, is that I’m just getting to the point where I’ve taught enough people in this city—at two different large schools—that I’m not really surprised when I run into people I’ve taught before. If I had any reservation about this phenomenon, this summer has made me far less touchy on the subject. My wife and I have decided to spend most of our summer at home, doing work and saving money, which means that I’m going about a pretty normal routine in the city. And these days it seems like there’s not a day that goes by where I don’t stop somewhere and see someone who once occupied a desk in my classroom. Everywhere I go, they are unavoidable. They are either working out at the gym or working there. They are working at the grocery store, the bookstore, the bakery, the coffee shop, the camping store, the bar. They are everywhere.

The summer of former students touched off early, before school was even out. A couple of my cousins were passing through town for a family reunion, where I took them to a street festival in the uptown part of the city. We took a break in a local park to play cornhole when I heard my name across the park. I remembered his name, and knew that he must have recently graduated college. And as he was in the midst of a wedding celebration, he seemed to be more of the spirit than I was. So we chatted and departed with smiles. I don’t remember all their names, however. There was one who ran the snack bar at the gym whose name I couldn’t remember, nor could he remember mine, as he called me “Mr. Teacher.” That worked in my favor though. His gratitude for my education—as well as his profuse apologies for being out of kale and bananas—scored a breakfast of a smoothie and egg wrap for free.

Many of these encounters have been this memorable, this wonderful, this edifying. The student who talked maps with me before I went on a hiking trip. The student who I saw just as she was about to blow this town and leave for college. The student who was just wandering through the bookstore and gave me good book recommendations.

Most of the encounters have been a bit more pedestrian, however. And while feeling loved and useful in public is nice, it is the everyday encounter that has given me pause to think. Sometimes, we don’t even talk. Sometimes I see somebody walking a hundred feet away and I get the premonition that I know them . Sometimes, I just catch someone looking at me in that “I know that guy” way, and I probably am returning the favor. Sometimes, it’s a polite wave across the coffee shop or a “How are you doing?” in the checkout line at the grocery store.

Most of my friends—former students or otherwise—know I tend to overthink things, and I’ve been grappling with this Summer of Former Students for some type of cohesive meaning, something I can take back into the classroom to improve my practice, or even deepen my understanding of the human condition. And there have been lots of little glimpses: the ephemeral nature of the teacher/student relationship, the empathy to imagine my students as actual people who exist in a universe outside cliché’ academic conversations, a critical re-evaluation of how important or influential 90 days worth of language or philosophical instruction can be in the grand scheme of things, the knowledge that my identity as a former instructor an evaluator can make someone feel like they’re being judged, being evaluated, all over again…like I’m judging their grammar or they have to justify their life choices.

Which of course, they don’t. School will start tomorrow. I spent most of today…a Saturday…in my classroom getting ready for Monday morning. On the way home I stopped at Earth Fare to get some dinner, and there was another one, behind the lunch counter. It had been close to ten years since our paths had last crossed. Timed had kept on moving, and we had both been changing. An interaction that had been so structured, so intense, had diffused in the waves of time, changing as we both encounter new moments daily. We caught up on how we had changed, then I headed home. Summer is almost over for me, and time for me keeps rolling along, into a classroom with 170 new faces that will enter and exit and go out into the world, 170 new bundles of aspirations and anxieties for whom my guidance and instruction is but one step in the path they walk, one influence of many. And perhaps if the wind breaks right and we are fortunate, some of us will cross paths again in a way that we can both enjoy, fondly remembering the past but also enjoying the wonder of the new and unique spot in time in which we find ourselves.

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