My relatives look to me for family history. They say, “I don’t know what we’ll do when you’re gone!”
“Where am I going?” I ask, without thinking.
“Well, you know…” they reply
You get to a certain age and people start flying in for that ‘last’ visit. My Belgian brother has made several of those trips. I can imagine them saying to each other, “She’s 84. How much longer can she last?” I have no opinion. I had my cancer battle in my 60’s – twice – so far in the past that I don’t even think of myself as survivor. My doctor and I have agreed not stir the pot by tests and x-rays and Ct scans. The diagnosis is ‘old enough to die’ but doing well.
It’s true that I was the only member of the family to be born in the hills. I could memorize anything and I loved stories about the family’s past. In fact, however, there are vast stretches of my own life which are lost to me. Apparently I raised two children in ‘the house under the hill’ near the school where their father and I taught. At gun point, I could probably come up with five specific memories. I taught high school English for 30-years. Ditto. At least, I have a cupboard full of dated year books in the event I need to remember. The photo albums of my family are few and undated. The 8 m.m. movies are helpfully of French cathedrals and Greek ruins.
Soooo last Saturday I got an email from Grant M. who said he had been my student in 1985 and graduated in 1990. Probably I didn’t remember him, but he told me a small story about a day I wasn’t my usual sunshiny self – pause there. My marriage had come apart in full view of 2000 students and about 100 teachers, most of whom knew it was going to before I did. Of course Grant came on the scene 7 years later, time enough for me to cheer up and my father didn’t die until 1988, at which time we got acquainted with 3 different police departments. Okay. It is possible I smiled on occasion. Grant disturbed by my gloom that day in 1985 rushed to the local market and bought the biggest, red-est apple he could find. He put it on my desk. I came into the classroom from the prep room next door and exclaimed in delight. Ah ha, I had the memory, Grant skewed his body up in a dead giveaway as he sat down. He blushed as I laughed and pointed at him. He had warmed my heart.
In his email, he admitted that I used to yell at him, but he didn’t hate me for it. I think he was in grade nine then, one of 35 hormone-driven kids, outgoing, spontaneous and funny. But that was my stage, my audience, so cool it, Kid. His friends had advised him to get a transfer when they saw I would be teaching him, but he said he was glad he hadn’t because I had taught him how to write an exam as well as much else.
By 1990, he had grown into his features and made a handsome graduate
On yearbook day, it was customary for me to hand my book around so students could write in it. His comment was on the back of the front cover, number one. I began to read other comments. I always had students fill out an evaluation of me on the last day and I always threw them away unread as soon as they were gone. The advice I gave any teacher. Never, never read them. I mean would you ask your ex-husband to evaluate you? Some of the yearbook comments alluded wryly to their differences with me, which apparently had ended in a truce. Others gushed. They sounded as if I had saved them from an otherwise unenlightened life. And I was always, always happy. If only I had known. Well, I lived in the country and I read the best books and I showed them how Hamlet was like them.
Then I leafed through the 1990 book looking at the pictures. Life in the hallways was vibrant with life. They were vibrant with life. They were in love – usually with a whole group. They were funny. They were up to no good. They didn’t have hall passes. When I was on hall duty they sent someone like Grant in to distract me. Then they sneaked in the other door.
In the halls my inability to recognize faces made me smile at one and all, really to duck and cover because sensitive little thing that I was, the noise and chaos overwhelmed me.
Grant said he told his children how much he liked me, how I’d helped make him what he is, how glad he was to have found me alive and well.
At a certain point in my career I had mentored new teachers and my job as department head had that same role. I always told them a good teacher was measured not by what she knew but by what she was. That was what the students learned.
Grant M. has a gift for reaching out and reminding me and no doubt others that alone as they feel, pandemic or not, they are loved.