A few nights ago, I saw a former student. That happens when a teacher stays in the same place for a while. You run into someone out in a store, at the movies or at the park. Sometimes the child is just a few years older and it’s easy to see the little one you taught before. They’re just… bigger. There are still high school kids who come back to reminisce about elementary school. And we have reunions fairly regularly so I get to keep up with the slow but relentless changes as my young friends mature.
Since we started our careers in Michigan 31 years ago, then moved to Indiana for several years while Heidi got her doctorate, I never run into anyone from really early in my teaching. My first class of 11 year olds from back in 1979 would be 42 now. Wow!
A few nights ago we had an annual event that I always look forward to. We call it information night. Since The Center for Inquiry is a magnet school, parents may select from CFI or other magnets. Thanks to our brilliant superintendent and school board our district is all choice. Parents may choose to send their children to any school or program provided there are openings and it doesn’t lead to segregation within the district.
One night a year parents and children come to CFI to learn about us; to see if they want to bring their kids to school here. There are many fine schools in Richland District 2 so this evening is a time for us to share who we are, what we do. Of course I am biased, but CFI is an awesome place for kids to go to school.
Kids learn and laugh and – sometimes cry. Teachers do too. The teachers are dedicated professionals who take the job very seriously. I take that back. It is more than a job. It is a way of life.
Our principal, Lyn, begins with an overview of the Center and shares a bit about our philosophy. This year we shared a video project Heidi created of us teaching over the years. It shows kids being amazed at a magnet exploration, kids sharing phenomenal pieces of writing, interviews with student teachers, kids reading, singing, exploring math, etc. After a parent (and friend) shared why she chose CFI for the education of her two little ones, the perspective parents were encouraged to visit the classrooms.
After returning to my classroom for a few minutes this young couple walks into the room with two little ones in tow. The man smiles broadly and I know I know him. I walk up with my hand outstretched and apologize for forgetting his name. I recognized him as a former student from my last school.
“Mr. O’Keefe. It IS you,” he said, in almost a whisper as he shook my hand. “I heard your name but I didn’t know for sure until I saw that old guitar on the video. It’s me, Jake.” Now it hadn’t been THAT long. CFI opened in 1996, so Jake must have been in my third grade class in 1994 or ‘95. Fourteen or fifteen years, right? Of course both of us had changed a lot. I’m about 10 pounds heavier, I wear glasses full time, my beard is ¾ white, my wrinkles deeper, my hair is shot through with gray.
I remember Jake as a little shy at first but he warmed up pretty quickly. I remember him always having bed-head; his front teeth were a little too big for him. But those bright brown eyes and big smile haven’t changed much. They just morphed into those of a handsome young man. He and his wife were thinking of enrolling their little girl in CFI. There would be a good chance that I would have her in my class if they choose CFI and she got in.
This happens to teachers much younger than me. I have heard lots of teachers say that they taught former students’ children. But it still left me a little breathless to know that I am the age where my little ones now have little ones of their own and that I might even teach some one day.
I asked Jake what he remembered about third grade with me all those years ago. “Not much really.” He sort of looked inward for a moment. “You read to us a lot,” he said. “Good books too. Like maybe Charlotte’s Web.” OK, I am an old softy. That is the book we are sharing for literature study right now. “And I remember having pets. We had that turtle, right? What was its name? Angela?” I had Angelo for about 25 years. Just last summer he finally made it to his real home in our woods. “And we sang a lot of songs too. Didn’t we write some songs together? And we sang ‘Down on the Corner’ that oldies song.” If WE don’t teach them about Creedence, who will? Am I right?
Jake’s daughter was a little too shy to talk to me. She clung pretty tightly to her daddy’s leg. But I recognized that red-brown hair and that shy smile. She still has her baby teeth but I’ll bet her front permanent teeth will be a little big for her face for a while. Maybe she’ll have bed head too. But she will grow into a beauty – just like her beautiful parents.
It doesn’t bother me that Jake doesn’t remember specifics about the SC History he learned in our classroom or how I taught him long division or all of the standardized tests we did back in the day. I’m glad that when he thinks back about third grade he remembers the feeling of it; the classroom pets, the books we shared and that old guitar. It would be an honor to teach their child, to be a part of Jake’s life again in a different way. It is always an honor to teach little kids.