former students

Exit 238. The relationship goes both ways.

I saw a coworker the other day. Her children, two of whom had been students of mine in the past, were with her. The oldest one is now in high school. She was in my class three years ago, in that same memorable class as the girl who dropped precalculus, the guy I had no memory of, Protractor Girl, and the friendly guy I saw at the basketball game.

I waved. She waved back.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“Good,” she said. Or something like that; I don’t remember the small talk part word for word. “How are you?”

All I could think of to say was, “I’m really stressed right now.” It’s true. I am really stressed right now. I have a lot of things at home that need fixing. My house is a mess. I have a lot of school responsibilities I’m trying to juggle.

“It’s okay,” she said. “You’ll get through it.”

There are plenty of stories out there about teachers inspiring students. Most people have a favorite teacher who inspired them in a particular way, whether or not this teacher even taught the subject matter that the student in question enjoyed. But, after almost two decades of working in education, I would venture a guess that there are just as many stories of students inspiring teachers. Students and teachers are a significant part of each others’ lives for a time, and the relationship goes both ways. My former student is correct here. I will get through this.

And so will all of you. Happy Easter/Resurrection Day, friends.

Exit 227. Taking my own advice.

Two unrelated things happened this week that, when juxtaposed, say something interesting about me.  

The first was a conversation I had on Tuesday with a former student who is now in high school.  I’ll call her “Lambda-2 Fornacis.” Lambda was in my class three years ago, the same class as Protractor Girl, The Boy I Have No Memory Of, and The Kid Who Sat Behind Me At A Basketball Game Once.  She was the kind of student that most teachers love to have in their class. She did her homework, it was neatly written, and she always was one of the top students in my class.  I think she had straight As all through middle school. I normally tell students that they can add me on social media after they finish middle school and go on to high school, but somehow (probably because these kids have older friends who talk) she found my Instagram (which doesn’t have my real name anywhere on it) and started following me the year after she had my class, when she was still in middle school.  I didn’t do anything about it, though, because I figured she wasn’t the type to cause trouble, although I didn’t follow her back until the day after she finished middle school.

Anyway, Lambda asked me something about a recent post on Instagram, I replied, and then I asked her how she was doing.  She mentioned that she had dropped precalculus. This year has been the first time she had ever struggled in math, she didn’t like the teacher she had this year, and she had been rethinking her career plans.  I have to admit, that was a little disappointing to hear at first, because she was such a great student for me, and I’m always disappointed to hear when people don’t love math as much as me. However, I completely understand where she is coming from, and I told her so.  I told her about hitting the same proverbial wall with physics my freshman year at UC Davis, how I struggled so much with that class at first, and while I still did well, it just didn’t feel as natural for me as math did. It was during that first physics class when when I decided for sure to major in mathematics and not physics, and I didn’t take any more physics after I was done with the minimum that would be required for the math major.  I told her that there’s nothing wrong with changing your mind about your future plans, especially since she’s only 15. I told her that as late as age 19, I was telling people that there was no way I would ever be a teacher. And I told her that I took all the most challenging classes in high school, to the point that I had some very long days senior year, but I wasn’t doing it because I had a career plan. For me, it was because I felt like school was the one thing I was good at, and I would be a failure if I didn’t.  This is not a mentally healthy outlook. I know that Lambda is going to be successful no matter what direction she takes her education.

That was Tuesday.  On Wednesday night, I got very little sleep.  I discovered another important thing here at the house that needed to be fixed.  I started to panic under the pressure of everything that needed to be done. I was behind on grading papers.  I had errands and chores that were piling up, and the kitchen sink was full of dirty dishes. I had now four important home repairs that needed to be dealt with as soon as possible, one of which was already making life more inconvenient in very tangible ways, and another of which had the potential to do so if left unchecked.  I couldn’t sleep, and I wasn’t sure if it was related to stress, recent changes in medication, other health problems I didn’t know about, lack of exercise, or what. It’s very hard for me to get these home repairs and chores done sometimes, because I’m rarely home during business hours and my schedule isn’t very flexible. I don’t get a lot of exercise this time of year, because I’m only home when it’s cold and dark.  And I couldn’t call in sick and take a day to recover from the lack of sleep and deal with these problems, because the classroom is such a mess that a substitute wouldn’t be able to find what they needed, and the kids would get behind anyway because my curriculum doesn’t work well for people who haven’t been trained and aren’t well-prepared.

I went to work on one hour of sleep (and I had gotten three hours the previous night).  I made an important decision while I was tossing and turning: long story, but basically I sent an email to the administrators saying that I needed to back out of one of my weekly commitments.  This would give me one more day of the week that I could get home a little earlier when needed, if I needed to deal with something before it got dark and places closed. Thankfully, they were very understanding.  But, I told the principal, I still feel like I do so much less than so many other teachers. Some of them are working on graduate degrees. Many of them attend more professional development workshops than I do. Some of them are department chairs, or serve on committees.  And many of them have young children of their own. I feel like there is something wrong with me, that I have such a hard time handling my own job, let alone all that extra stuff.

And then it hit me.

Why do I have such a hard time taking my own advice?

Just a day and a half earlier, I was messaging Lambda telling her that it was okay not to burden herself with hard classes that she didn’t need.  So why can’t I tell myself that it is okay not to burden myself with stressful commitments that I don’t need?

Everyone’s brain works differently.  I get more easily stressed and overwhelmed, and I’m fighting demons from the past that many of my coworkers don’t have.  If I really believe what I told Lambda, then it’s hypocritical to insist upon myself that I take on extra commitments that I don’t get anything out of.

It’s now Saturday, and I feel so much better.  Getting out of that extra commitment allowed me to leave earlier than usual on Thursday, which gave me time to make some phone calls to start the process of dealing with the two most pressing home repairs.  I didn’t get completely caught up on grading, but it’s now a three-day weekend, so I’ll have time to catch up.

I’m going to be fine.  :)&[4].

Exit 11. That same kind of situation, except now I’m on the other side.

I got recognized in a crowd the other day.  I’m famous.

No, not exactly.  And it wasn’t from this blog, although that would have been awesome.  “Hey!  I know you!  You’re that guy who writes Highway Pi!  Can I have your autograph?”  “Sure.  Anything for my adoring fans.”  Actually, if someone I didn’t know came up to me and said that, I’d be really scared, because I’ve never used my last name or a photograph of me on this site.

So here’s the story.  I was at a concert on Friday night.  This show was a three hour drive from my house.  I have family in that area, I grew up in that area, and I went to the concert with my cousin.  This really drunk guy in front of me at one point turned around and said, “Hey, is your last name [insert my last name here]?”  I said yes, thinking that was someone I had gone to school with at some point in my childhood, or possibly someone who was in a class or on a sports team with my brother, since he didn’t know my first name.  I said I didn’t recognize him, and he said, “Not me.  That girl right there.  She says you were her teacher a long time ago.”  I asked him when, and what school, and the information was accurate; I was in fact a teacher at that school during that year.  It was 11 years ago that I was her teacher, and the school was over 100 miles from where this concert was.  I asked her her name again, since I couldn’t hear what the drunk guy had said.  Normally this would have been one of those really awesome wow-what-a-small-world, what-have-you-been-up-to-the-last-11-years moments, except for one thing.

I don’t remember her.

She didn’t seem too upset or put off by that.  She said it was a long time ago, and she understood that I’ve had a lot of students since her.  I even went so far as to ask who her friends were in 7th grade (which is the grade I taught during the year in question), and if she remembered what period she had my class, hoping that that might jog my memory.  She said she was quiet and didn’t have a whole lot of friends, and she only remembered one friend’s name.  I do remember her friend by name, although I don’t remember that girl very well either, just the name.  And if she was correct regarding the period she had me, I remember her class being one that was mean to me, so I’ve probably blocked it out of my memory.

I realized something yesterday.  I mentioned in #7 that I had a pen pal in the ’90s who I recently tried to track down and get back in touch with, and she didn’t remember me.  What happened Friday night was that same kind of situation, except now I’m on the other side.  This girl who I used to write to years ago meant a lot to me.  I didn’t have a lot of friends during that time, I was going through some difficult transitions in my life, and she was always there to be kind and encouraging, not to mention nice girls who look as good as she did often didn’t pay that much attention to me.  But from her perspective, being cute and young and friendly, she had a whole lot of other guys competing for her attention, so one of them is much less likely to stand out almost 20 years later.  As for what happened Friday night, a middle school student only has five or six teachers each year at the most, so each one is a lot more likely to leave an impression on a student.  I can still name all my teachers from 7th grade, for example.  But from my perspective, I had around 160 students each year, and I had hundreds more students each year after that.  It’s only natural that I would have forgotten a few over a span of 11 years, and I don’t think it makes me a bad teacher or a terrible human being for having done so.

Still, though, I like running into and hearing from former students.  I wish I could remember them all… well, at least all the ones who weren’t mean to me all the time.  There are a few that I’ve stayed in touch with all along, and a few more who have tracked me down on Facebook over the years, and a few more whom I have gotten reacquainted with after running into them somewhere.  It’s nice to see what became of these people whom I knew as preteens and teens.  And it’s always fun to hear what they remember about my class.  This girl I saw on Friday said that she liked my class, and that I was always helpful.

I’ve never mentioned my line of work on this site… but this fall, I will be returning to the public school system.  Maybe I should do something differently at the end of the year to make sure I remember these students.  I’ve saved yearbooks from every year I’ve taught before, and if this new school does a yearbook, I’m planning on continuing that practice.  Maybe I should save a copy of each year’s class rosters too.  Or maybe I should just let life take its course and not feel so bad about forgetting some people from the past.  I don’t know.  Something to think about as I get ready for the new school year.

And as I started writing this last night, I was telling someone this story, completely forgetting that I had just told her this same story 20 minutes earlier.  So maybe my memory is just going bad as I’m getting older. 🙂