If you were to ask me what I think my former students remember most about having been a student of mine, I would venture that my 2nd graders remember camping out in Joshua Tree National Monument during a desert study, or that my 3rd graders might talk about how we did not have a classroom library, we had a reading park complete with plants galore, a park bench and grass (aka fuzzy green rug), or that my former 5th graders remember that during a real, live earthquake instead of the well-rehearsed “Drop, grab, and cover,” I yelled, “Oh, shit!” I would never guess, however, that a former student would remember how I responded to a bit of impromptu conversation during read aloud. And yet, that’s exactly what Amanda has remembered for the past 20 years.
About eight months ago I heard from her. Maybe this is a common occurrence for some of you (I’ve moved around a fair bit and I’ve resisted Facebook), but Amanda’s email was my first. I knew from the moment I read her email that I would write about it, it’s just taken a while to, in the words of Katie Wood Ray, sit and stay.
Her email began like this:
I’m Amanda Broder-Hahn and I was lucky enough to be a student of yours at Temple Isaiah in the 1990’s.
My parents and I still talk about you and remember you fondly. Recently, in a conversation about small moments that subtly changed the trajectory of our lives, I decided I wanted to look you up and say thank you. Google is a wonderful thing. I hope this doesn’t feel weird. Speaking of weird:
Confession: I always loved Amanda. I remember her precisely—she was a gentle soul and a sophisticated lover of books and authors at 8! I could count on her to bring a fresh perspective to a project or a problem. And of course, these very gifts, sometimes set her apart from the other students. Case in point, she is the now kind of person who engages in conversation about small moments that subtly changed the trajectory of one’s life. Love her!
Her email continued:
Speaking of weird:
We had just begun to read The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet and you asked us to raise our hands and tell you the first adjective that came to mind when we encountered the Professor. Every hand in the classroom swung up as one, and you called on six or seven kids and everyone said the same thing without hesitation: “Weird!” One kid (I wish I could remember who it was!) said, “Interesting.” You invited us to consider other words that were similar to both weird and interesting, and at the end of that day I valued weird as something original, special, and capable of things I couldn’t imagine.
Confession: I have no memory of this moment whatsoever. Clearly this was P.T.—pre-Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. I did not yet know about things like reading partners, turn & talk and read alouds that were planned, instructional and interactive. But, I did know that teaching was about more than reading, writing, and mathematics. I knew that teaching those things and teaching values went hand in hand. I knew that I had great hopes for the kind of people my students would become.
Next Amanda wrote:
That allowed me to embrace being a bit weird myself. I remember feeling like I had permission to really relish and value being me. The approach you took to questions and discovery in general, but especially in that moment, has allowed me to be more curious and compassionate, to be more imaginative, to solve more problems.
Confession: I am not sure what to confess. Teaching is such hard work and regrets are inevitable. We attend a workshop or a course where we learn about a new strategy or approach and we experience varying degrees of guilt. If only…, we think. Might that have made the difference for…, we wonder. The truth is, as teachers, we plant seeds and we nurture and nourish those seeds, but we almost never see the harvest. And yet, year after year, we do the heavy lifting of cultivating the soil, planting the seeds, etc.
I am so grateful to Amanda for reaching out and giving me a glimpse of the amazing person she’s become:
I went to culinary school straight out of high school, and have been baking as well as working with and for local, sustainable farmers for the past several years. I’m going back to school now to be a librarian and literacy advocate. I’m interested in exploring the roles public libraries can take in the intersection of literacy, social and political involvement and food justice in underserved communities. Going back to school now, and thinking of the process of becoming educated from the perspective of an adult, I appreciate the tools you gave me, both for learning and for being a person. Every day, my life is better because you were my teacher.
I read and I k’velled. Look at the person Amanda became! A baker and a blogger, a learner and an activist. Of course, I love reading that her life is better every day because I was her teacher. But the truth is, I am the lucky one. I had the opportunity to be a part of her life for one precious year. And, it mattered. A lot. To Amanda and to me.
(That’s me in the brown blazer and Amanda just to the right in the red and white stripes.)