Past and Future
Does a new story invalidate an old one?
I am not certain I clearly understand your reasons for leaving teaching, especially since I think you have had and would continue to have a profound effect on your students. But I also recognize your desire to find greater relevance in work. I always knew I wanted to be a physician. Sometimes life works that way. I happen to think you are wired to be a teacher, maybe not at [redacted], but somewhere. Maybe in a different field. Maybe. But that is just me, the ramblings of an old man.
When I told students that I’m leaving, and that difficult parents may have been partly to blame, one student said, “How could anyone not like you?” But it’s possible. Every year midway through I give a survey with four questions:
What are you doing to help yourself succeed in this class?
What can you do better?
What am I doing to help you succeed?
What can I do better?
This year, one student wrote in response to the third question, “Not much”; another wrote, “Nothing.” Maybe it’s time to move on.
But there’s also the other side. A parent recently told me that they thought I was the best teacher at my school. Not their child’s favorite; the best. I “know how to talk to teenagers,” they said. I’ve had countless students seek me out on my lunch break to bitch about whatever and “spill tea,” as they say. I’ve had students cry on me; come out to me; brag to me about their successes; hug me (always awkward, but whatever); write apology notes on tests for letting me personally down (also always awkward, but whatever); write heartfelt letters about how I changed their lives, sometimes even years after the fact. I’ve had alums send me memes or TikToks that made them think of me. I’ve reconnected with some years down the road at their initiative. I must be doing something right.
I started out doing things wrong — very wrong. Enrollment in early years tanked, because I didn’t know how to talk to them. Over time, I got better. Maybe good enough. Maybe better than that. Back when ratemyteachers.com was actually a thing, it tended to aggregate the complaints more than the praise, so that only aggravated my impostor syndrome. And yet, I’ve had plenty of validation.
But still I wonder, does a new life invalidate a past one? Some days I think so — and my dad (quoted at the beginning of this piece) certainly thinks so. Funny; when I flunked the bar and turned my back on three expensive years of legal education, he didn’t seem to mind. But now —
My twenty-year high-school reunion is coming up, and I posted something on Facebook about not wanting to go, because in retrospect I hate the person I was in high school, and I’m not sure I want to hang out with people who like and want to see that person. But I was encouraged to go — it’s in November, and I haven’t fully decided yet — by classmates who think it’s an opportunity to show how different, and how much better, I am.
There are two lines I write in yearbooks, and maybe it’s time I listened to myself. One, a modification from Vergil’s claim in the second half of the Aeneid that he’s doing something better than in the first half (funny how the A.P. syllabus has always focused on the first half, disbelieving its author). The changed line:
Maior rerum tibi nascitur ordo;
Maius opus moves.
Which is to say:
A greater order of things is born to you;
You move a greater work.
The other line comes from the Greek poet Pindar, and translates to: “Be who you are — once you figure out what that is.”
In high school, I didn’t know who I was. Ten years ago, I didn’t know who I was (asexual). Five years ago, I didn’t know who I was (bipolar). Even now, I don’t know who I am. I recently recorded an episode of a friend’s podcast (to drop early next month — don’t worry; I’ll promote it) about my being autistic. For such an open book as I am, it is an identity I’ve never made a big thing of, maybe because I am only the product of a lot of self-initiated research and self-diagnosis. I feel like a fraud to claim that identity. But it is a part of who I am; everything is. I will always be someone who taught, who helped students figure out what they are. Nothing can take that away.