An undercurrent of post-work casual conversation fills the small restaurant in Portland’s Pearl district. My husband Eric and I have driven 2 1/2 hours from our home on the Oregon Coast to meet with Will, a former student, and his fiancé. They have traveled from New Haven. she for work, he for a “break.” Despite the fact that I have become close with his family over the years and afterward, having taught Will and his two younger brothers James and Brian, Eric has never met any of them. He knows them vicariously, as he tells Will, “I’ve heard about you for years. It’s great to finally meet one of you.”
Our dinner is convivial, the conversation lively and loaded with anecdotes. A colleague of Olivia’s, Will’s bride-to-be, has joined us. All of us are readers, so there is plenty to share. The evening suffuses me with warmth. This, after all, is the real joy of teaching, to spend time with the children you once taught, seeing who they’ve become. I used to tell the students that while I taught them in the present, I was imagining them in the future. Once a New Yorker cover depicted that very phenomenon, a classroom, thought bubbles floating above the students, the teacher’s hopes and dreams for each one of her “kids.”
The evening is winding down though; Olivia has work in the morning, her last day before they fly back East. I want to tell her one last last story before they leave. “Olivia, ” I begin, “I met Will’s brother Brian before I ever taught him. Has you already heard this?” She shakes her head, so I continue. “The PTO at Will’s K-8 school grants scholarships to high school seniors. There’s an application process, a cover letter, the usual transcripts and test scores. Students also submit two letters of recommendation.
“I was on the review committee for several years as a teacher-advisor to give an opinion if the parents asked for one. Awarding money when there are so many worthy applicants can be difficult. Will, an accomplished senior, has applied, and his documents are in front of me. I peruse them; they’re all in order. Will is reliable, measured and true, always has been. When I unfold one of his letters, I quickly scan the top and bottom; it has been written by Will’s younger brother Brian, a sixth grader I have not yet met. I meet him here, on this page, as he enumerates the qualities that make his older brother Will the best candidate for any scholarship we have to offer.
“The exact wording is lost to me, but the pride and love that Brian holds for Will is palpable. It doesn’t hurt that Brian is an extraordinary writer, so gifted that when he is an eighth grader he will win a national writing award and follow it up with a Scholastic medal in high school. What matters in this moment, is that Brian is passionate about his subject —Will, his brother—and he can support every claim with indisputable and well-articulated evidence. In short, the letter floors the committee.”
Olivia has listened, nods when I finish, and turns to Will. There’s her smile and his almost sheepish grin, lovely. Sometimes as teachers we help students who are desperate, needy, lost. Sometimes, though, we experience the sheer wonder of walking alongside young people who teach us about being in this world, how lucky we are.
As we walk to the car, my husband says, “I’m so glad I got to meet Will. What a kid…”