High school teachers get their rewards--seeing students achieve things like getting into the college of their choice or winning a scholarship or (gulp) crossing the stage to accept their diploma. Teaching high school also ages a person more than teaching elementary or middle school. It's not so long between teaching a senior and walking into a tavern three years later and hearing "Hey Mrs. ______!" (Because nothing makes me feel a decade older than being referred to as "Mrs. ________" instead of by my first name like the rest of the planet is addressed.) Or heading to preschool orientation for my oldest son and discovering former students of mine. (They can't be old enough to have babies!) It takes twenty years before a former second-grade teacher runs into her students working in the lab at their doctor's office. It takes a former high school teacher four years. ("Hi, Angie." Shit--we got along, right? She's got a needle and I'm at her mercy...)
Unlike the elementary teacher, who remembers former students by mere personality (shy, happy, serious), the high school teacher adds to the memory a grade earned (or disputed) and accomplishments (track star, busted at a beer party, lead in musical). As a high school English teacher, I carry the added weight of my former students' dreams--the dreams I read in their essays, heard in class discussions, prompted for their scholarship applications. (I want to be a dentist, be the first in my family to graduate from college, own a snowmobile and a boat.)
My former students have married and divorced. They've been in accidents and Ivy League colleges. They've experienced the death of parents, siblings, friends and spouses. They've rescued small children and impoverished immigrants. They've become lawyers, doctors, teachers, salespeople and the owners of small businesses. They've become accountants, police officers, electricians and landscapers. They've landed in middle management, public office and prison. They've become mothers and fathers. They've adopted children, highways, hobbies and worthy social causes. They've lived amazing lives and they've died before truly getting started.
I find the last the most difficult news to endure. I weep for the brothers (a pleasure to have in class) and the parents (now that I have a son, I cannot imagine the loss of one). I reflect on the former student's potential (so smart, hard-working, polite, personable) and on the path they tried to take (college, grad. school--almost a pharmacist). I imagine the adult they became based on the eighteen-year-old I'd known (marathon runner, diligent student, clear-headed voice of reason in an argument). While I note the visitation time on my calendar, I remember a fragment of their life in my basement ... in a dusty file cabinet containing the remnants of my former career. Down the stairs, switch on the light, pull open the drawer. Thumb through the manila folders ... writing prompts, Grapes of Wrath unit, vocabulary tests. I find it.
A single copy of an essay written for my class. An essay so well-written, so eloquent and concise that I used it until the day I resigned. "This is an excellent example of a reflective essay--written by a former student," I would tell my classes and they'd note the name with approval. Adam Nickel.
I'll photocopy the essay and send it along with the card containing my condolences. It's a small thing, but it's tangible and I'd want my son's work returned to me under the same circumstances.