The Student


He called me “Doc”; he was young, beautiful, good-humored, and bright.  He sat in the back of the class room and delighted in challenging me–eyes twinkling, laughing when his challenges were countered, a bit comically nonplussed for a few minutes, then trying again.  He came by the classroom at end of day to borrow my books and return others, to talk about the novels–Steinbeck, Tolstoy, Austen, Bronte–and to try more challenges.  Laughing as they were met again, he would toss a wry comment over his shoulder, and trot off after a promise to return with the books, his ideas after he read them, and another challenge. He was the student who chose to test himself (and me) in serious discussions and hilarious banter that delighted us both and made me a better teacher.

Eventually, I moved on to another teaching position, and he wrote that he felt lost without his teacher to tease and talk with. But moving on is both natural and required as we set our students free to explore and discover on their own.  We hope we gave them a few  tools and helped build their confidence to take on the world.  But years later, as a college senior, he suddenly appeared again, this time in my office.  Laughing, hugging, and asking for more books, he was a revelation: the student who not only remembered but also cherished those years of sharing laughter and books. We talked again for hours, and I felt touched because it is rare that a student who moves on comes back to touch base with the teacher who was there when he was younger, testing himself, and beginning to set out on his own life.

I have not seen that student since–he had a life, family, and career to build.  But as I reflect on my teaching career–now on a retirement path–I think about the thousands I have taught, and the dozens who became friends, hoping I made a small difference in their lives because they gave so much to mine. This bright, laughing young man was the one I had the most responsibility for, who had the most trust in me, and who gave so much more back than he could have known.

It is true that teachers touch the future through their students, but students also touch teachers’ lives and are remembered for years after they have disappeared into their own lives. We remember them as they were: beautiful, smart, funny, challenging–on the thresholds of newly-minted adulthood and so precious. They become metaphors for all we do in the classroom and beyond: the truth about teaching that flows both directions between teacher and student. It is all about the students and the sacred relationships between students and teachers.

Now I approach the end of my career, as this forever young student still twinkles, challenges, and laughs from the back of the class room.  I am grateful for and blessed by this memory and those of other students whom I have also loved, miss, and remember. They are the inspiration and the sound track of my life.

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