Monday, June 8, 2009

Do My Past Students Remember Me? Do I Remember Them?

I was out to dinner last night when I realized that one of the restaurant hostesses may have been a student of mine.  I mean a student from a few years ago, in a college where I taught a couple of classes each semester.  I didn't remember her name, but her face was familiar--and I remembered that this particular student grew up in the town where I was sitting in a restaurant now, having dinner.  So, it was probably her.  

She looked good, a little less Goth than she used to (nothing wrong with Goth, but I am just saying that she looked more grown-up, more trying-to-come-across-as-respectable).  I mentioned to my companions--my husband and parents and kids--that I thought I might have taught her.

"Go over there right now and say hello!" commanded my mother.  No, I muttered.  What if she doesn't remember me?  That would be awkward.  And the truth was, I had no idea what her name was.  I was racking my brain; I just couldn't recall.  

What I remembered most clearly was how this student would look at me from the front row of writing class. Her hand holding up her chin, her mouth open, her eyes always staring directly at me but still, at the same time, utterly vacant, slightly watery looking. Bored.  

If I could read minds, I would predict that her thoughts--while sitting in my class, which I actually don't think she ever missed--were one of two:  "This woman makes no sense!" OR "I think this teacher is crazy."

The real reason I was afraid to speak up now was because I just couldn't deal with a negative reaction from this girl, even though I barely knew her. I may put on a show in my classes and routinely stand up and speak in front of total strangers, but I am still pretty shy. I have a teaching persona that doesn't really approximate my actual personality. Plus, I am super-sensitive, and if she hated me and I definitively knew it, that could send me running off to my bedroom, sobbing.  Okay, I exaggerate--but it wouldn't do wonders for my mood or self-esteem.

Also--if I screwed up three years ago, if my class totally sucked, I really don't want to be reminded of it now.  I am a better teacher than I used to be; I get better all the time.  I swear it.

We ate our dinner. My mother asked the server the name of the hostess with the black hair.  It was Maria.  Yes, I did teach her. I knew it for sure now.  

Another memory bubbled up:  the only time Maria became animated in class was when we were--strangely enough--discussing zoning and town meetings.  Maria suddenly railed about how her hometown was set to allow construction of yet another motel--and right next to a residential area, too, the place she grew up.  Already this town had three seedy motels.  Why another? It was disgusting, unnecessary, unjust.

Ah, yes, as a former journalist, I know all about those contentious town meetings where hundreds of residents come out in force to protest the construction of something-or-other.  I told Maria, and the class, that I completely agree with standing up and fighting the power to try to protect your hometown.  I understand all the arguments.  I applaud perseverance and audacity and not shrinking before bureaucracy.  And yet, I told them, I also know from experience that it's usually pointless.  Business trumps human concerns, pretty much every time.

It's all, sad to say, about the money. It's not about maintaining wholesome hometowns or the unsightliness of Motel 49 next door to your dad's house.  The Town Board doesn't actually care about you, even if the board members are your neighbors.  

What it boils down to is who owns the land...landowners can do what they like. If the landowners want to sell their lot to a motel chain, then there's basically nothing anyone can do, even if the zoning disallows it. Remember, these people have lawyers. They find all the loopholes.

"Way to be blunt," said one of my students in a depressed tone of voice (not Maria, though, who just looked steamed, still thinking about another hideous motel scarring her hometown).  I was sorry to be blunt, but, I explained, I have sat through scores of town meetings that ran until midnight or later, with concerned citizens lined up out the door waiting to protest the building of some new monstrosity in their neighborhood.  No matter how eloquent they were, no matter how right, it always came down to money.  Who owned the land--and, also, could this business make money for the town? Money determines the outcome.

Maria said she was determined to protest anyway.  Good for you, I told her. Don't give up. Just understand the system.

On my way out of the restaurant, I did say hi to Maria (being reminded of her name helped me find the courage).  "Do you remember me?" I asked her. She smiled, sort of blankly (much like the blank stare she would give me in class).  "Uh..." she stammered. 

"I taught you," I prodded.  I named the university and the course.  Next thing I knew, Maria was hugging me. "You were awesome," she declared. "Amazing."

"Of course she was," said my mother.  

I told Maria she looked great, which was true (and maybe I didn't look so great; maybe I just looked older and that's why I was hard to place? I didn't want to know).  Maria hadn't graduated yet--but that makes sense.  The years that already blur in my mind may not be as far away as I think.

As we stepped out onto the sidewalk, the setting sun still blazing in the sky, my daughter did a great imitation of Maria's embarrassed, vacant smile.  "Stop that," I said. "You do it well, but...don't do it."  I realized now that Maria's blank look was not a judgment. I am unnecessarily paranoid sometimes. 

Maybe it was simply concentration.  Or maybe it was just her face.

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