I was at the Simon Fraser University book store downtown this afternoon when the cashier recognized me as the instructor for a class she had taken over a decade ago. That sort of recognition happens less often than you might expect, although I must have taught five or six thousand students overall. But it does happen once or twice a year, and never fails to make me edgy with the start of panic.
Partly, my panic is due to the fact that so much has happened since my instructor days that I hardly feel like the same person I was then. My ambitions, my career, and my whole outlook have changed dramatically since then – and not just once, but two or three times. I’m not much for nostalgia, thinking it a form of self-indulgent depression, so I don’t particularly welcome the unexpected reminders of the past.
For another, my interactions with a former student is necessarily very different from the one we once had. I am informal to a fault, but, in the past, the student-instructor relationship put us in an unequal relation. Now when we meet, the relationship is more equal. Or it should be. But the former inequality still colors what happens unless we are very careful. And the last thing I want to be is condescending, or assuming a superiority I no longer had nor wanted in the first place.
Even more to the point, one or two meetings with former students haven’t always gone particularly well. One former student lives in my neighborhood, and we often exchange a sentence or two when we encounter each other running, but, with other students, the encounters haven’t been so smooth. One student looked me up asking for a recommendation for graduate school at a difficult time in my life, and was put out when I told her – truthfully – that under the then-current English Department chair, my recommendation wouldn’t do her very good. Another met me coming out of the Canada Games Swimming Pool in New Westminster, and only my sense of my own ridiculousness kept me from sucking my gut in while we talked.
But the main reason these meetings make me feel uneasy is that I wonder how I am remember. By my own estimation, I was a committed instructor with scintillating lectures and a good rapport with students – but, by that same measure, who isn’t? The fact that my evaluations and frequent rehiring suggest that my self-estimation is not complete fantasy doesn’t help any, because (for all I know, at times), I could be meeting one of the handful of students who disliked me or complained about a grade.
Told that I once taught someone, my first impulse is to blurt out something like, “Well, I hope you have happy memories of the class.” But that would sound like I am angling for the very approval that I want, making it impossible for me to know if the reply was sincere or given out of pity. At the very least, it would put the ex-student on the spot. So, instead, I make small talk, hoping that I will gradually pick up the impression of what the student thought of me.
And, usually it is positive, as I would know if I used any sense in the matter. After all, why would someone reveal themselves to me if they had any animosity? They’d either ignore me or bop me on the head with the nearest blunt instrument the moment my back was turned. But logic has little to do with my reaction, so I am always disconcerted by these meetings, and probably always will be.