I was on my way out of the bagel joint with my usual Tuesday morning breakfast recently when I heard, “Mrs. Cunningham?” I don’t get that much anymore, other than from the checkers at Safeway, but there was a time in my life when I didn’t have a first name, and I heard it every day. And when my students asked what my first name was, I actually told them “Mrs.” It was a bit of an investigative coup to know your teacher’s first name, wasn’t it? It’s funny, now, to think of the thrill of gaining that particular nugget of secret knowledge. It’s almost as shocking as learning that your parents have actual given names other than “Mom” or “Dad.”
I turned to see who was speaking to me, and it was a handsome young man seated at one of the tables. I knew he had to be one of “mine,” a student of yore, but that’s as far as the identification process went. As I walked over to him, his face didn’t ring any bells, and he was a little uncertain himself, because he said, “You taught at St. Michael’s, right? Spanish?” I admitted that I did, but my puzzled face reflected my puzzled brain, and I still didn’t know whom I was talking to. Usually I remember kids’ faces, (though I’m not always great with names), but this time I was at a loss. I used to teach high school, and kids didn’t change that much post-graduation, not enough to become unrecognizable, but the kids at St. Michael’s were just finished with 8th grade when they left us to go to high school, and they were…well…kids.
He got the hint and introduced himself, and once I had his name, I saw it: the boy he’d been when I last saw him beneath the man he had become in the intervening 8 years. Kids grow up a lot in 8 years. I confessed to him that I would’ve never recognized him, and he said he wasn’t sure it was me, but recognized me by my eyes. And truly, that is where we change the least, where we are most ourselves, which is why that’s the part they black out in magazines when you’re a fashion “don’t.” While the rest of him had become unrecognizable, his eyes were the same.
The last time I saw him, though, they were hidden by glasses, and he was a skinny kid. Smart, loud, obnoxious, but likable nonetheless; in short, he was an early teenage boy. We chatted a bit about what he was up to (just finished college and heading for grad school in the fall) and what I was up to (I left St. Michael’s the year after he “graduated”). He said my officemates and I were his favorite teachers. We liked him, too, and I told him so. (You can tell ‘em that once they’ve graduated.) He gave me a hug as we said goodbye, which surprised me. You spend a lot of time being the bad guy when you’re a teacher, and it’s always a little astonishing to find that kids appreciated you and don’t hold a grudge. Perhaps it’s the intervening years that soften their memories.
I guess that works both ways, because as I drove to work, I thought about my years teaching, especially the last 2 years at St. Michael’s, and found myself thinking that they were all pretty good kids after all. And the bulk of their “bad” behaviors could be chalked up to being kids. They needed adult guidance, to be sure, but they weren’t malicious, as I suspected them of being on my worst days. And in truth, it wasn’t the kids that drove me out of the profession. It was poverty and lack of support and difficult parents and poverty; I worked a lot of free hours back then, and sweated out many a gap between the day the money was gone and the next payday.
There aren’t a lot of rewards in teaching, but a kid calling out to you in public when they could just as easily walk by unnoticed is one of them. It means that what you did mattered to that kid, at least a little. And when we graduated from teacher’s college, that’s all we ever wanted.