Every year, on the first day of school, I give my students an assignment where they answer some questions about themselves. It gives me a chance to do some necessary paperwork while they are writing, but it also gives me a chance to learn a little bit about who is in my class that year.
One of the questions I ask is who lives at your house. That way, I can see if a student has a large family, or if they live with both parents, or if a relative other than Mom or Dad is raising them. I added to that question two years ago: “If anyone in your house has had me as a teacher, circle their name.” I looked at my class list that year and saw a few familiar last names, most likely younger siblings of students I had had before, and by that point I had been at the school long enough that I was probably going to be getting younger siblings of students I knew every year until I retired (unless I end up at a different school for whatever reason). So I added this, just in case there were any students whose siblings I knew but I didn’t notice that they were related.
Students aren’t good at following directions, of course. I’ve had a few students just see the words “circle their name” underlined, and they circle the names of everyone in their family. And the reverse happens too; I had one this year name her older sister on that paper and not circle her name even though her sister was in fact in my class. Whether this was due to not circling the name or just not knowing whether her sister had been in my class and being too lazy to ask, I don’t know. With this student, it could have gone either way.
Sometimes I can tell right away when a student has an older sibling whom I know. This year, there is one boy in my class who very much resembles a girl from three years earlier with the same last name, except that he’s a dude and not built like a gymnast. On the first day of school, I told him a funny story involving his sister and a protractor, which he said he remembered hearing about back when it happened.
One girl this year circled her older brother’s name. I just assumed it was a mistake. The name didn’t seem familiar, and it’s a fairly distinct last name that I would have remembered. I never asked her whether it was a mistake or not. But about a week ago, a student sitting next to this girl mentioned that she had heard stories about me from an older friend who was in my class last year. I just kind of chuckled. The girl who had circled her brother’s name then said, “My brother told me he liked having you as a teacher.”
I made some noncommittal remark, something like “That’s good, I’m glad.” But that really got me thinking. Apparently this girl did in fact have a brother who was in my class, and I had no memory of this kid. I thought maybe he never actually had my class. Maybe his friends were in my class, so he knew who I was. Maybe he was a student who liked to hang out in my room after school and do homework, because I’ve had students do that sometimes some years. Or maybe he came to the club that I sponsor once a week after school. But surely I would have remembered him if he had actually been in my class.
I got curious a few days ago. I clicked on the archives of previous years of the student information system and started checking class lists, going back to the first year I was at that school. And eventually I found him. The girl was right, and I was wrong. He was in my class, in 2015-16, my second year at this school.
And I had no memory of this kid.
That was a pretty memorable class, too. Some of the students I remember the best were in the same class as him, the same period in the same year. Like Protractor Girl. And the student who sat a few rows behind me at a Kings game once. And one of the handful of students who have been consistently in touch with me since they left the school. And the daughter of a coworker who had a hilarious quote about one lesson that I’ve shared with every class since. But I don’t remember this kid at all.
I feel bad when I realize that there are former students who I don’t remember. A few years ago, I wrote (warning: there are a few of you with whom I’ve discussed some of my fiction writing other than what has appeared on this site, and clicking the following link may contain spoilers about the events that inspired that writing) about a particularly memorable experience about forgetting a former student. But in that case, eleven years had passed in the time since I had had that student, and I had moved. This time, it was not nearly as long, and I’m still at the same school, with his sister in my class right now.
I just got out the yearbook from his year to see what this kid looked like. And he wasn’t there. That made this whole thing look even more creepy at first… but probably not, he was probably just absent on picture day. I found his picture in the yearbook for a different year, though. And he still doesn’t really look familiar, except for the fact that I can see the resemblance to his sister who is in my class right now. While I was looking through the yearbook, though, I saw so many other names and faces whom I hadn’t thought about in years.
I’m sure I’m not the only teacher who goes through this. I’m sure it’s perfectly normal, after having 140-150 students every year, that I’m not going to remember every single one. It just makes me feel bad.
I don’t spend a whole lot of time reading those papers about my students. Maybe I should get them back out every few months as I get to know the students. And in the meantime, I’m glad that this student thought I was a good teacher, even though I don’t feel like one since I don’t remember him.