I’ve certainly had my awkward moments as a teacher.
There’s calling on a student halfway through the semester that I still don’t know the name of. There’s trying to draw on the whiteboard and having all three markers be completely dry. There’s telling a joke that doesn’t get even the slightest chuckle from a single student.
But to me absolutely nothing is more awkward than bumping into a former student who you either failed or gave an extremely low grade to.
When the semester ends, that’s it. That group of students you’ve been seeing week after week go bye-bye. After seven years of teaching, it still makes sad after every semester when the students just… disappear.
Sure, you see some of them here and there on campus in the years to come. Occasionally a few of the students will come up to me and say hi.
And many of the students will glance my way, then look down and keep walking as fast as they can. I once said hi to a former student during my first year of teaching, and the girl looked at me and asked, “Do I know you?” That put an end to ever saying hello to a former student. My motto now is if the student says hi, then I’ll say hi back, but I won’t ever instigate a conversation.
Bumping into a student here and there isn’t really awkward, it’s fine.
It’s bumping into a student that you gave a low score to that can ruin your day in a blink.
Last weekend I went to the gym. I started on the elliptical, and I was about ten minutes into to my workout, ‘80s music blasting through my headphones, when I spotted a young woman walk into the gym. She looked immediately familiar. I saw her glance at me, and then I glanced back at her.
It was one of my students from last year.
I smiled at her, but then she turned to her right and kept walking, and before I knew it she was headed clear across the gym.
And that’s when I realized it: she was one of two students I gave a D last semester.
The rest of the work-out didn’t go well. I was trying to zone out again, continue enjoying my work-out, but all I could think was that one of my former students was in currently in the gym likely thinking horrific thoughts about me. Thinking the word ‘asshole’ over and over, probably with every rep, every stretch.
But that instance doesn’t even come close in the level of awkwardness to two more I’ve had recently.
Over winter break I was writing a new middle grade novel, a ghost story called Dark Glasses. I started becoming claustrophobic sitting in my house writing the novel day after day, so on a Friday I decided to go to a local coffeehouse to work on the book. I was already 5,000 words ahead of my goal, so I figured worst case I might just get 1,000 words or so for the day instead of my usual 2,000.
I wanted to see people again. I wanted to listen to conversation around me, not just music.
So I walked into a coffeehouse I had never visited before near my house and walked up to the cashier. I looked at the menu above. Decided on a white chocolate mocha, that sounded good.
I finally locked my eyes on the barista. He was a student I’d had in one of my English classes a couple of years ago.
And I remembered it, immediately: I’d failed him on the first two essays, and then he dropped the class.
He asked for my order, and I didn’t say anything at first. I wondered if he’d remember who I was. I almost considered saying something about who I was.
But good sense came over me fast, and I gave him my order, and he smiled his sweet smile, and I’m pretty sure he had no idea I was one of his former teachers.
It had been a couple of years, after all.
The worst run-in of all happened in March.
I went to the Red Robin near my neighborhood with some friends. We were seated right away, and I was excited for a meal that in no way was going to be healthy. A loaded cheeseburger with sweet potato fries. Maybe even a chocolate milkshake. I was stoked.
Then the waiter arrived to take our order, and I let out a loud gasp.
It was a student I had failed in a film class I taught at the local community college three years ago. A long time ago, but still — I had actually failed him. He missed too many classes, didn’t turn in all the essays and assignments, so I wasn’t exactly the one at fault, I wasn’t the asshole.
But he had come to most of the class sessions, and I had promptly failed him at the end of the semester. I didn’t think much of it at the time.
I didn’t plan on ever seeing him again.
And then there he was, after all this time, taking my goddamn order at Red Robin.
I watched him closely as my friends gave him their orders first. I waited for some acknowledgement from the waiter. A knowing nod. A quick, “Mr. Rowe, good to see you again.”
I was the last to order. Like the barista, he didn’t show in his face any memory of who I was.
After he walked away, I told my group that our waiter was one of my former students, and that I had failed him, and in an instant everybody at the table assumed we were going to be poisoned. That there would be enough spit in our cheeseburgers to fill an entire wine glass.
I won’t lie, when my order came out (from a different server, I noted), I questioned eating that burger. I lifted both buns and inspected my food.
Looked under the fries for anything unusual — a bloody Band-Aid perhaps.
But there was nothing unusual. The food tasted great. I woke up the next morning feeling fine, not dead from a severe helping of rat poison.
Still, though, it was extremely awkward. Because it’s really hard to fail or give low scores to students in the first place, but then to bump into them again months or years later? In settings far outside the classroom? When they’re no longer your students and they’re just people — people taking your food or drink order?
Let’s just say it’s not pretty.
Brian Rowe is an author, teacher, book devotee, and film fanatic. He received his MFA in Creative Writing and MA in English from the University of Nevada, Reno, and his BA in Film Production from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He writes young adult and middle grade suspense novels, and is represented by Kortney Price of the Corvisiero Agency.