I wasn’t a good student. As a matter of fact, I barely got into college. I got in but only based on the strength of my ACT…certainly not my pedestrian 2.3 GPA. This might lead you to believe that I struggled in college, but nothing could be further from the truth. In my first semester, I earned over a 3.0. So, I was feeling pretty good during my first Christmas vacation back from college. It was around this time I saw one of my old teachers in the mall. She was one of my favorite teachers from kindergarten. I immediately called out to her “Ms. Walker!” She turned, smiled, and said hey. She asked me some superficial questions. “Where are you now?” “How is your mom?” “Do you still talk to any of the other kids from the class?” I answered all her questions, of course, and told her how much I enjoyed her class. At the end of the conversation, she said, “It was good to see you, Ronald!” Then, she turned and walked away.
My name is not Ronald.
It was only then I realized that she didn’t remember who I was and that one of the goals of her superficial questioning was to try and figure it out without my realizing. It didn’t work, but she got pretty close. “Ronald” was the other black boy in my kindergarten class that year. She deduced from my age and the names I mentioned that I was in that class and assumed I was him. Ronald was always acting out so it’s of little surprise she remembered him and not me.
At any rate, I was hurt. How could she not remember me? Ms. Walker meant so much to me as a kid. She didn’t even care enough to remember my name. I told myself that if I ever taught, I would remember all of my students.
As you have probably ascertained from the title, I was wrong.
I have been teaching for close to nine years, but it only took me one to start forgetting names. If I’m being completely honest, I never really learned all of them anyway as I taught 180 students my first year. I still work at the same school in the same neighborhood, so I see a lot of former students around. When they come up to me sometimes, I remember them….and sometimes I don’t. I feel bad when I don’t, but it really can’t be helped.
When my students see me, they usually remember me instantly. Not because I was that awesome but because statistically speaking from their perception, I am a much bigger part of their life than vice versa. I am likely one of 30 to 40 teachers they had growing up. But from my end, it’s different because that student is 1 of the 2000 kids, I have interacted with over the years.
Additionally, when a student sees me, I still look mostly the way I did when they had me and likely will for at least the next 15 or so years. However, I teach my students before and during puberty meaning that almost none of them look the way I remembered them in class.
Still, there are students that I do remember but just like Ms. Walker, the students I remember are often the ones that gave me the most trouble. The honest truth is that unless a student stood out in some exceptional way, good or bad, my memories of them won’t be that strong years down the line.
Now I get why my old teacher didn’t remember me. I can put myself in her shoes. She’s out shopping. A random teenager accosts her in front of Dick’s Sporting Goods and starts regaling her with tales about her class. She has no way of remembering my name because 18-year-old me looks very little like 5-year-old me. But in an effort to make me feel valued and probably some genuine interest, she attempts to place a name through the course of the conversation. When she fails, I’m shattered. But now I realize now how silly of me it was to expect a kindergarten art teacher that I didn’t even see every day to remember me from my 5-year-old face 13 years later. This also doesn’t make the positive experience I had in her class any less valuable.
I know I won’t remember every student I teach, but knowing they probably will remember me makes my job that much more important. I can’t make a student feel loved and valued years down the line, but I can make them feel that way while they are in my class. Perhaps if I do that, they won’t be as upset when I call them by the wrong name in the freezer section of Target ten years later.