A Note To My Students, Past and Present

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I’ve had this rose for almost 20 years. It’s blue craft foam with a florist wire stem, both artfully twisted into something much greater than the sum of its parts. One of my high school students gave it to me, just because. Over the years, it’s followed me from house to house, carefully packed away with all the fragile treasures, and I’ve always had it on display in my home office. I’d be devastated if anything ever happened to it.

The student who crafted this for me wasn’t particularly academic, nor did she think much of herself. She was artistically talented, had a great sense of humour, and was a loyal, caring friend, but declined any and all compliments. Even when she presented me with this thoughtful gift, and I marveled at it, she insisted “It was nothing.” All these years later, I can remember her name, her face, her voice, and all kinds of stories she told me. I sometimes look at this lovely rose, and wonder if that student has any idea that I still think about her, years and years later.

After 20 years as an educator, my head still swims with snippets of memories of all kinds of students. I remember the one whose home was bombed when he was three, and he didn’t speak for almost a year afterward. I remember the one who protested in Tiananmen Square. There was one who couldn’t write her final exam because she had joyfully welcomed a baby the week before, and another who had been in a film with Jackie Chan as a child. Some of them really liked me, and a few of them (hopefully not too many) hated my guts. A handful of them have reached out to me via social media over the years, now busy with full, adult lives. But they’re all still in there somewhere.

Lately, this little rose has been a potent reminder of the situation we’re in, and not in a bad way. This semester, my students and I had to jump online three quarters of the way through our course, and we did our best to squeeze our conversations through WiFi. The rose was in the background as we got through our lessons, and now that our course is finished, it makes me think of the people in our class this semester. It makes me hope that they know that I’m still thinking about them, especially with all that’s going on in the world at the moment.

I feel pangs of something I can’t quite name for my own little thinker too, who very badly wants to go back to school. The rose has reminded me to assure her that her teachers are thinking about her, and that they share her wishes. I try to explain to her that she probably still occupies space in the heads of teachers from years before, and not just because she’s a memorable character.

That’s just the way teaching works, you see. No matter how well the semester or year goes, students don’t just filter in and out of classrooms without leaving a mark on the folks who are educating them. They sneak into conversations, challenge us to do things differently, maybe better, and occasionally, they spark worry. Whether you love your teaching job, or can’t stand it, whether the year goes swimmingly, or is a hot mess, your students wedge themselves into your brain.

For any parents who are reading this, please be assured that your kid’s teacher took something of them home when they packed up and headed indoors. Know that they think about all of their students every day, and that when they look at pandemic stats, or hear that there’s at least another month or two where they won’t be face to face with their classes, a little bit of them crinkles up and aches. And no, the fact that your kid was part of their class when this big, horrible thing happened won’t overshadow anything. Their teachers’ memories of the class of 2020 will include the kid who likes to eat purple crayons, or the one who sings the national anthem the loudest, or the one who insists on feeding the class fish. Please make sure your kid knows this too, that they’ve made an impression that’s likely to be there for a long, long time.

I’d give an awful lot to tell these things to the student who made me this rose.

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