He was a generic twenty-something in a blue hoodie and dark rimmed hipster glasses just like so many of the young men I’ve taught throughout my career. As I walked past him in the lobby of the budget hotel I was staying in, I didn’t think much about him. Since it was before sunrise, it was clear that he’d worked the night shift at the front desk. We were equally bleary-eyed and in need of coffee. Since I generally do not speak to anyone before I’ve had mine, I was surprised when he spoke to me.
Mrs. O? ? Don’t tell me you don’t remember me!
This happens a lot to old teachers who’ve taught a lot of students, though not generally before they’ve had their first cup of coffee. We run into those students in some of the most unlikely places. Like restaurants, and gas stations, and even the lobbies of budget hotels in Fargo at the crack of dawn. Sometimes, old teachers are able to match up the face they’re looking at to a name in their mental student roster of hundreds of students. Sometimes, old teachers know the face but can’t for the life of themselves find the name that matches. Especially at sunrise.
I have found, in situations like the latter, that the best thing to do is say, “Forgive me. Please tell me your name.”
He was fresh out of high school the semester I had him in class. He told me how much he’d enjoyed the class he’d taken from me so long ago, how much he’d learned. How the discussions in class had made him think harder about hard things and how the world had opened a little wider for a boy from the prairie. We talked about who he’d been at nineteen and how he’d ended up where he found me. We talked about how we can be so sure of some things and so clueless about others and how even really smart kids end up working in budget hotels in Fargo. How those kids, the smart ones, are often most at risk of leaving college even though they can do the work. How so many other things can stop a smart kid.
As we talked, memories of him at nineteen started to come back to me. I remembered how quiet he’d been in a very diverse class full of rowdy students that semester and how he often sought me out after class or in my office just to chat about nothing and everything. I remembered how he’d seemed sad a lot of the time back then. How he’d seemed lonely and more than a little lost but also very bright.
I am an old teacher who, more and more often, believes that there are no accidents when it comes to chance encounters. We needed to meet today and the universe made it so. I’m glad I was able to tell him that I really did remember everything but his name.
It was even nicer to be reminded, once again, why I teach. Why I love it, still.