On the train home yesterday I ran into a student of mine from last year. We barely recognized each other. Since shaving my beard I look a bit younger and she looks like a soon-to-be middle schooler. While I would be excited to run into any of my former students, I have to admit I was especially happy to run into this girl. She’s an incredibly smart girl and an unbelievably talented writer. She also has a tough home life and a look of perpetual sadness and exhaustion. Since leaving my old school I have wondered periodically how she is doing.
Since last year she’s moved to a new neighborhood that requires her to travel almost an hour to school each day. Her sister told me she’s often late, because she doesn’t want to get going in the morning. When I asked about her plans for next year, I hoped she would list one of the better middle schools available in the Bronx or even Manhattan. Sadly, her mom forgot to fill out the applications, so she doesn’t know where she will be next year.
When I decided to teach, it was based on a cliched, middle-class, white liberal “save the children” fantasy. While my expectations of teaching have been tempered over the past three years by reality, my hopes for my students remain ever-lofty and idealistic, if not naive. It’s hard losing touch with my former students and wondering what will become of them. In the case of truly extraordinary students like the girl on the train, the hopes are all the more elevated.
It’s tough to think a girl as innately talented as my former student might get lost in the shuffle in middle school, without having a chance to really challenge herself. I hope that even if she doesn’t get to attend a top middle school, she’ll come across some teachers who help her tap into her potential and fight through the challenges of her circumstances. I hope she’ll take me up on the offer to help her in any way if I can. If she doesn’t, then I hope I still run into her again someday.
That’s probably unlikely though. I guess that’s one of the tough parts of teaching. You don’t get to help your students for more than one or two years. After that all you can do is hope for the best and trust that your colleagues will pick up where you left off.