It happened again last week, this time in a voice mail. As I listened, I quickly connected a face to the name. She left her number and a few details. The final sentence was the same as always: “Do you remember me?”
Usually, the messages come on social media. These are accompanied by a picture, and I scan the adult, searching for a hint of the kid I once knew. Always, my former students write or say some variant of “I hope you remember me.”
I receive a few of these messages a year, and my answer is always the same. “Of course I do,” I respond. “How could I forget you?” For many, I can remember exactly where they sat and who sat next to them. I can picture their faces, maybe conjure their voices. I can think of both first and last names and remember their personalities. Others are wisps; maybe I recall the approximate year, maybe the grade I was teaching, maybe the school.
When I started teaching, I was only 22, and I had no idea what a challenge it would be. As a kid, I had played school constantly. I always wanted to be the teacher, forcing my siblings into makeshift desks assembled from meant-for-other-things furniture, while I wrote on a chalkboard I had received as a gift.
Being in charge of a real classroom is no game. Kids won’t be forced into anything — not a seat, not an expectation, not a routine. Every student required something slightly different from me, and that could change by the hour. Problems at home, fights with their friends, hunger, fear, they all showed themselves differently. Some students strove for excellence while others seemed intent on disruption. Some competed with their classmates for the best grades, and some refused to do anything. Some had tons of friends while others longed for just one. I tried to notice all of this and manage it, while working on all that needed to be taught and learned.
There were highly memorable hallway fights, fire drills, and field trips. We had field days and test days and assemblies. But it was the daily schedules, the mundane routines, that brought us together. For 10 months a year, I’d revolve around them, circling their desks, saying their names, knowing their handwriting. We’d read together, crack up together, and bicker together. I learned when to push and when to be gentle. I knew who needed extra help and who could probably teach the class themselves. I’d try to calm the class clown and get the quiet ones to talk. Sometimes we laughed all day, and other times I drove home crying.
As the year went on, we would function as a group, mostly accepting all of one another’s needs and quirks. Then June came, and they gleefully broke ties. That was usually it. I might catch a glimpse of them in the hall the next year. I might have one of their siblings in my class. Once I changed grades and taught the same kids twice. Other times, they moved during the summer and I never saw them again.
Sometimes I’ve read their names in the paper or heard about them on the news. A few times this was good; most times, it was devastating. Some are gone, lost to accidents, illness, or violence. Others found trouble. Some made their mark. I hope most of them have at least made their way. For the majority of the thousands of students I’ve known, I have no idea where they are or what they are doing. I hope they remember the fun we had and forgive the mistakes I made.
And any time one of them contacts me, I will tell them all the good things I remember about them. I will tell them I could never forget. And I can’t. For some months, years ago, they were in my class. But for always, they are mine.