It often happens that I meet a former student of mine in the street and one of the following scenarios occur; the student either looks away immediately, pretending she has never seen me before, or she puts on a broad smile instantly and greets me merrily. Depending on the situation, we may even exchange a few casual words.
I obviously prefer the latter scenario because it makes me believe that I made my mark in a student’s life; it makes me believe that I once mattered to a student. The other scenario, on the other hand, makes me feel embarrassed, ignored and unappreciated. In such a case, I tend to accuse the student of utter disrespect and total ignorance.
The other day, though, I suddenly saw the whole thing from a slightly different perspective. For some unknown reason, I remembered how I had reacted when accidentally bumping into a former teacher of mine. I would either look away, pretending I had never seen him before, or I would smile broadly and say ‘Good morning’ merrily.
The fact that I would sometimes choose to look away had nothing to do with disrespect, dislike or ignorance; it had nothing to do with a particular teacher at all. It had a lot to do with my own self-esteem.
When I spotted an old teacher of mine long after school, the first thing that I pondered was whether he actually remembered me. It flashed through my mind that he had probably taught hundreds of students throughout his career and I concluded that he couldn’t remember us all. I deduced that I was probably one of those faces he could no longer recognize in the crowd and I decided to look away, robbing the teacher of the opportunity to show that he actually remembered me very well.
What I’ve written sounds very strange. But what if some of my former students feel the same way? What if they feel they are just some of those faces I can no longer remember? What if they feel that our long-ago connection did not last long enough and was not strong enough for me to bother remembering? What if their seeming ignorance has nothing to do with their attitude to me but with how they perceive themselves in relation to me? And finally, what can I do as a teacher to avoid the future moments of embarrassment?