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For almost a quarter century, I have tried to avoid the past. I have run from it in the Eaton Centre, hid behind power tools in Home Depot and quietly melted into the crowd at public gatherings to escape its detection. At work, however, where I am caged and captive, I’m often unable to make an emergency exit.
The past I speak of is contained in the life experiences of about 5,000 former students. Out of that number I have likely encountered, both through accident and design, about 200 students, which is eight for every year that I have been teaching. This number is not spread evenly across 12 months. It is often bunched around summer, when I am more frequently out and about in the city, and during university and college breaks, when students make their pilgrimage back to the nest.
Twice a year, with the regularity of spawning salmon or migrating birds, students return to high school to visit teachers. Usually they do this in the first year after graduation, although some show up as long as five years later (and I have even seen students at my door seven years after they left our little pond). Some come back to display their maturity and worldliness, having now lived away from their parents for a few months and learned that freedom is just an Orwellian euphemism for slavery. They left us as caterpillars and return as butterflies, although some were grubs in high school and, to be blunt, have come back as beetles.
They still call me “Mister Bray” and no matter how much time has expired I forever remain locked into this authoritarian title and role. Like an actor who is typecast and will never be known for his true range of acting skills, I will always be a teacher, and the more interesting parts of my life, the roles that give me dimension (landscaper, writer, father) are not even imagined by my students.
These visits can be awkward. Usually they come in pairs or trios, as if teamwork will lend gravitas to their accomplishments. I often forget names and offer a generic: “Hey, nice to see you guys!” before carrying the conversation with questions about where they went, what they did, and what they miss about high school.
Their answers are mostly the same in 2013 as they were in 1992. The metamorphosis into responsible young adult has been altered, though, by technology and capitalism, and they face challenges and opportunities that I am happy to have avoided in the eighties. (I’m glad that Tumblr, Flickr and Facebook were not ubiquitous in my university days, given the embarrassment I would suffer if my parachute suit and pink runners, circa 1983, were still available online.)
Some students use these visits to remind themselves how far they’ve come, or how small high school now seems. A few will come back to thank us for doing a good job of preparing them for university and college, and even give us accolades for being better teachers than university professors (we should win this competition, since we’ve spent so much time learning to teach).
I have had bad students return to apologize for their unruly presence in my class; I remember one who had become an entrepreneur, notwithstanding the fact that he showed only two out of 10 traits of successful entrepreneurs when we did a short self-reflection quiz. These are the surprises for which I take no credit, but relish.
The worst encounters are the unexpected ones. These happen outside academia, where students are surprised to learn that I actually exist and can function in the real world. I suspect that they are probably as eager to avoid me as I am them, although I have no way of knowing how many students have successfully ducked out of sight after spying me in the subway/mall/restaurant/stadium. Malls are particularly rife with these random sightings and if I am lucky enough to spot a student before detection I adeptly escape the venue. A busy clothing store, especially one that is out of context for my age and fashion sensibilities (where I might be shopping with my teen daughter), provides myriad opportunities for subterfuge. Home Depot is large enough to allow me to be a moving target until I can find an exit, and on the subway I’m only a stop away from disappearing into the throng.
On the other hand, there have been times I’ve enjoyed the chance meeting. One was with a student I’d taught 15 years earlier. She’d become a teacher herself, a comrade, and her memories rang true for me. The other time was at a bookstore, where the once-rude teen was now a twenty-something man. He was at the cash register and there was no way for me to get out of line without being spotted.
While waiting my turn, I recalled how much I disliked this person. He was a bit of a bully, who had often made derisive comments about me, usually of a personal nature. I fantasized about what I might say to him when I got to the counter, seeking retribution.
He took my book and said hello. He asked if I remembered him.
“Yes, of course, how could I forget you?” There was more I wanted to say, but then he spoke.
He was working to pay his tuition. He wanted to be friends on Facebook. He missed my class; he thought I was a “cool” teacher.
I made the purchase and left. He waved to me when I looked back. He wasn’t quite a butterfly, maybe more of a moth, but he was an adult.