This weekend was my town's annual summer festival, aka the weekend when everyone comes back for class reunions and other shenanigans. My husband had his fifteen year class reunion, so we ended up out and about, too. The street dance/ concert was unnerving for me for one major reason: roughly 30% of the crowd was now former students of mine from my earliest years of teaching. Some smiled and waved, some awkwardly avoided eye contact while still trying to stare at me, and some visibly sneered (all completely justifiable reactions). I've written here before about how much teacher guilt I have for those students from my first few years of teaching; how now that I'm an exponentially better educator, I feel like I didn't do them justice, or I caused them irreparable harm in some neglectful way. Which is why a moment from last night meant so much to me.
This is one of my original students. One of the very first I had for both seventh and eighth grade. He was an adorable kid then, and when we ran into each other last night, the smile on his face when he said, "Miss Springsteen!" was enough to make my heart melt into a puddle. We hugged, but instead of moving on after checking in on life, he stayed by my side to tell me three things that made my heart happy:
1. "Because you read Ender's Game to us, I realized that I love reading and I love science fiction and fantasy. When I read the Song of Ice and Fire books, I thought about how Miss Springsteen would love these!"
This is the definition of success for any English teacher: something I did made a kid fall in love with reading for pleasure for the rest of his life. And as a sci-fi/fantasy junkie, it's always gratifying to welcome a new convert to the fold.
2. "I still have my old journals you made us write, with your comments in them. I was just at my parents' house the other day looking through them."
Knowing that he kept those old composition notebooks gives me chills, because I still have mine from my high school Comp class. Yes, the writing is mostly terrible, but I still look back fondly on the ritual of it, the connection journaling created for me as a writer and human trying to process life. Him keeping the journals means (to me, at least) that he made that connection in some way, too, and that's what I want for my writers.
3. "Do you remember when you stood up for me in the hallway that time? Someone was picking on me, and you came over and told him to stop. When you did that, people stopped picking on me. That made such a difference."
As a middle school teacher, I've reamed out so many kids for bullying comments over the years that it's become second nature. Sometimes I worry that my involvement embarrasses kids, or might make the bullying worse. Hearing that I was a defender and protector when someone needed it reinforces that I'm not one of those teachers who doesn't notice when a kid needs my help.
He then went on to introduce me to his older siblings and family who were there. His brother even laughed and said, "Oh, we all heard about how awesome you were, Miss Springsteen."
Hearing such unabashed praise for how much of an influence I had on his young life was just the reminder I needed when surrounded by all those former students. My fear of failing them isn't completely dissolved; I know I'll always bear a certain amount of guilt for those early years. But knowing that I still did enough to make such a difference in at least one young man's life is enough to make me cut my younger teaching self some slack.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.