Like all teachers, I have memories of so many things that happened over the course of my career: memories of colleagues and students, of extra curricular events – band concerts and competitions and trips and coaching, of lessons which worked and lessons which really bombed; of Ministry of Education edicts and school board directives.
I’m choosing to share some of my best memories of working with students and also my worst memories…
Students have always given some of their teachers nicknames. When I was in high school, we named the Head of Science ‘Uncle Fester’ because he looked like the character in the Addams Family TV show. We dubbed the Head of the Classics department ‘The Mortician’ because he had this very funereal air. I was used to being called Miss Summer and Miss Spring and Miss Fall. One student even called me Miss Indian Summer. I count myself lucky that, except for the play on my last name and why my students ever thought they were being unique and creative about that always escaped me, what my name seemed to be was ‘her’. “Is she here? Has anyone seen her today?”
I have wonderful memories of my music students. There was that group of 4 tall and strong guys. I was introduced to the Dr Demento show by one of them whose brother used to tape those radio shows. I remember ‘They don’t make nun names like they used to no more’ and ‘Billy the Mountain’. I’ll never forget one student’s hands as he started clapping and fanning them out as the jazz band played. All of a sudden, his large hands were in my line of sight. And when we had to get a tour bus moved quickly in order to get to medical aid for a student who had suddenly become very ill, that group of 4 pretty much bench pressed a VW bug out of the way of the tour bus… Bounce, bounce, lift and repeat.
And then there was John. He was a very shy student and a really neat kid. I watched how he transformed over the 10 days of our band tour to Nova Scotia. Each day, my students were introduced to a new family who would billet them for the night. John was very unsure of himself at the beginning of the trip and, by the end of it, he confidently introduced himself to his host family. It was just so great to see him grow in self-confidence.
And there was Karen, who when the class was starting to learn a new piece of music, looked intently at her music and clearly said, “This is gay”. Cracked me up. And Franz and Craig who dubbed the school’s double-trigger bass trombone, ‘Bruce’ – ” the haunting mating call of the Canada Goose …’Bruce, Bruce.'” [Think Monty Python] And Dale who, when the band was playing a piece where he had to play the same two bars over and over again, got lost. And suddenly I heard him singing on the same pitches he had to play, “Where are we? Where are we?” to which I sang back on the same pitches, “We’re at 44. We’re at 44.” So many great memories…
And then I moved on to work in the English department at the school. And again, I had more happy memories. There was Mike. Over the course of one semester, I watched him grow in knowing that he could do what I asked him to do. Then, he just flew through the course material and that was so wonderful to see. There was Cliff who had difficulty reading but, if he heard the material, could speak intently about it. Once he knew that there was a way for him to understand readings, he began to believe in his ability: he believed in himself. There was Steve who had a severely cleft palette. He had pretty much given up speaking to anyone because he was frustrated that they weren’t able to understand him. I always encouraged him to speak slower. And once he discovered that that strategy worked so that others could understand him, he didn’t stop talking. There was Aaron who insisted that he was genetically predisposed to be unable to spell. And I told him that there was no such thing as a spelling gene. There were the Jeremy’s who did their Romeo and Juliet rap complete with choreography and beat box. And in the middle of it all, I heard, “Hit it, Jean” and I couldn’t stop laughing.
So many wonderful students over 33 years. So many joyful memories.
And, like all teachers, I have memories of students who frustrated me mainly because I just couldn’t understand the choices they made. I wanted to tell them not to do what they were doing because the long-term consequences might be hard to bear. And I had to bite my tongue. It wasn’t my place to try and ‘save’ them. I knew that they had to, as I had had to, learn from their own decisions.
One particularly tough memory resonated for me not only as a teacher but as a woman. One day, a female student came into my office in tears. She had been sexually threatened the evening before. She’d shared her experience with one of my female colleagues who suggested that she should forgive the man and strive to find inner peace. And I told my student that if she wanted to yell then she should do that. She kept on wondering what it was about her that led to that experience. I let her know that it was nothing wrong with her. He was the only one at fault. And I offered to go with her to the Rape Crisis Centre if that’s what she wanted. I couldn’t punish him for what he had done; I couldn’t protect my student and I would be there whenever she needed me. I was so proud that she felt that she could come to me and I remember being angry for her and worrying about her.
Then there are my worst memories. They don’t revolve around dealing with administrators or colleagues or difficult students or even misinformed parents. They are about students I lost.
I remember Jim who was so happy when he was leaving the school one spring day. “Goin’ to ride my motorcycle. Goin’ to ride my motorcycle.” He kept chanting that as he walked out of my classroom. And I don’t know what caused me to be worried and I was. Less than two hours later, he was hit by a car and died at the site of the accident. He might not have been a stellar student and he was just always so happy and full of life and then he was gone. And for a while, it was hard for me to look to where he had always sat.
There was Tim, a trumpet player who always reminded me of a lanky Great Dane. I remember hearing the report of an accident where a car had been hit by school bus which blew a tire. I heard the names of those who had died at the crash site and I immediately called one of Tim’s friends praying that it was another Tim. And it wasn’t. And the next day, one of my music students came to my English classroom and asked for my keys. One of my band students had just come to school and only then heard of the accident. Could he please use the music room so they could talk? And I had to continue teaching.
There was another Tim. I had taught him English in Grade 9. He loved music and was an integral part of every music organization in the school. And when he was in grade 11, he had formed a band with a few friends which had just been signed to a recording contract. And over the Labour Day weekend, his car was struck from behind by a dump truck and burst into flames. The picture of the car which was in the local newspaper was horrifying. His future lay before him and then he was gone. On the first day of school, our principal called a school assembly in memoriam for him and his friends. And we had to go on teaching.
And there was Aaron. When he was in grade 12, one day he went missing. No one knew where he was. The police searched for him as did his classmates and his family. Prayer circles were held for the students over the days we all waited for news and hoped that he would be found alive. And it wasn’t to be. He had fallen into the river and drowned and wasn’t found for two weeks. Trying to help my students deal with their loss was so hard. He was a gentle and loving soul – someone who touched the lives of everyone he met – and he was gone. I don’t remember how I made it through his funeral without dissolving in tears.
Boards of Education usually have a ‘tragic events’ counselling team – board psychologists and other trained personnel who can go into a school to work with students when one of their friends dies. And we, as teachers in the school, are expected to help our students deal with their grief. And no one ever thinks to provide the same kind of support to the teachers in the school.
I retired from teaching in 2009. I will always carry with me my memories of the students with whom I worked. Thankfully, the happy and energy-filled memories far outweigh the sad ones.