There was an interesting tweet that I came across this week, about remembering students from six years ago. It got me to thinking, could I remember students from six years ago? Or even when I started teaching in 1999? Clearly, I don’t remember all of the approximately 1,251 students I have taught over the past almost 15 years (seriously, 15 years?). I certainly don’t remember many of their names. But I don’t have to think very hard to remember face, stories, writings, and instances in the classroom with a lot of these students.
(I’m not even going to include all of the kids that I coached swimming. A girl who I coached when she was 6 or 7 way back when just made the Canadian Olympic team, so, yippy!)
I remember the class of misfits I taught at an ESL program for high school students my very first summer teaching. They weren’t quite strong enough for Advanced classes, but too old to be put with the weaker Intermediate group. One week, we worked on making an application video explaining why they should be on Survivor (it was brand-new!). Another week, they made their own magazine, complete with advertisements. I also remember quite clearly the student whose mother had cancer and she had a nervous breakdown while away at our program. I spent an entire day holding her hand and taking care of her while we shuffled from hospital to hospital with the program director, trying to find someone who would look after her until her father could come. I also remember her best friend, left in the dark (remember, this was before cell phones were ubiquitous) about her condition, begging me to let him know if she was ok. They were all minors, so I had explicitly been told that I couldn’t say anything.
I remember during my Ph.D. the student who sat directly in front of me and glared, arms crossed, during two semesters of my class. The color in his face rose when I would talk about poetry; he clearly (and somewhat rightly) thought I had no idea what I was talking about. But he was there every day, became a major in my program, and later apologized to me for his attitude in my class. This was not the last time I would get this look from a student. I also remember the students who taught me a thing or two about Canadian literature in those classes.
When I moved to the States and started teaching Developmental Writing, I clearly remember each and every person in my first two sections of the class. They were purposefully kept small and we spent two quarters (or 20 weeks) together. They shared their lives with me as well as their writing, and when I would see them in the hallways the next year, I would light up; they had made it into their second year, one step closer to achieving their goal of getting a degree, despite the odds. In my other classes, I remember the student who exclaimed that I had finally made Fight Club make sense to her and the other who challenged me on every word I said, but in such a way that pushed me to be better.
I received an email recently from a student I used to teach during my one year on the tenure-track. Did I remember him? I remember an eloquent and moving analysis of a poem, insightful questions, and an enthusiasm for literature. Of course I would write a recommendation letter for him. I finally saw the utility of the narrative essay, as a tool to get to know my students, really get to know them, even while teaching writing classes with 30 students.
Now, I’ve been here two years, and I have taught 360 students over those two years. It is rare that I can go anywhere on campus without running into one of my former students. I still remember their essays, their projects, they enthusiasm (or lack thereof). And they certainly remember me.
I don’t even want to think about how many pages of writing I’ve read and graded from all of these students over the years (millions? Am I there yet?). Some of it remains a blur of printer ink and uninspired writing. But some of it still stands out, still sits in my memory banks. If some of the stories were vague here, it’s because I can’t choose which ones to tell. I don’t know and I can’t control who and what gets filed away for later, but I know that I carry a great many of these students with me, for better of for worse, as I move forward.