Notes from The Professor

March 7, 2013

X: the nameless

Filed under: Uncategorized — The Professor @ 3:08 pm
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I have written many times about memorable students — those whose particular talents or trevails left an indelible impression on me. But the truth is, I have forgotten far more students than I remember.

I have been teaching at community colleges since 1999, full time since 2004. Very rough math puts the number of students I’ve had in composition classes well over 3000. I won’t even start to add up the number of pages of essays read, grades calculated, excuses heard, or emails answered. The mind reels.

I’ve also mentioned before how frequently I run into students around town, in malls, restaurants, and even a tattoo parlor. Recently, I met three in a 24 hour period — and I didn’t remember a single one of them. One waited on me in a book store. One poured me a Jim Beam on the rocks. One served me dinner. Other than a vague suspicion that they all must have been former students, I had no idea who they were.

I have started to recognize the signs that someone who I think is a total stranger isn’t: an unusually friendly greeting followed by a more-than-perfunctory inquiry about how things are going. If I’m lucky, they’ll ask me if I’m still teaching, so at least I’ll be certain that they are, in fact, former students and not just making conversation. This will open the door for me to fake my way through a canned conversation (“Still in school?” “How are your classes?” “How do you like your new [job, school, career]?”) without revealing my ignorance.

Lately I find that even if I do remember them (if only just their faces), I have no idea how long it’s been since they were in my class, which class they took, how they did, or anything else. And these are people who, in their memoir essays, confess some pretty specific and personal stuff. I’ve had people suffer deaths in the family, undergo chemotherapy, have babies, and reach all manner of milestones on my watch, but months later, chances are pretty good I will have forgotten all but the most extreme cases.

I wonder how often I run into students who recognize me but don’t let on, either hoping I will have forgotten their poor performance or harboring such ill will towards me they don’t want to be remembered. One thing I learned the first week teaching: a whole lot of people hate English classes. I may have made an enemy or two along the way.

There’s a guy who works in the produce section of the grocery store where I do most of my shopping. He was in my research class years ago. He was a sweet kid, but he struggled to get through the course with a C. I still remember his name, and the first couple of times I ran into him (then a bagger) at the store, we greeted each other with a smile. But that was eight or nine years ago. He’s still there. Now, when we see each other, there is a strange, tacit understanding that we do not acknowledge our previous relationship. It’s as though college is something he tried on for size but didn’t suit him. I have written pretty vehemently about the myth that college is for everyone. He’s a perfect example of someone for whom post secondary school wasn’t a good fit, but who is advancing in a steady job and probably making a decent living. Still, I sense that he is embarrassed not to have “moved on.”

Probably even more so than university professors, I meet students at a time of transition. They haven’t just come to school because it’s the next step after high school, but to make a life change: a new career, a new path, a fresh start, something “more” for their families. Did that kid say to himself “I’m not going to work at Kroger for the rest of my life,” and decide to take some classes, or did someone else expect it of him? Is he happy where he is? Do I remind him of what he didn’t finish?

I’m probably just projecting again. Most likely, he has just forgotten me, as I have so many.



  1. Kate–as usual, and seemingly without effort, you tap into the messy emotions and the all-too-humanness that underlie our roles as teachers and that inform our relationships with students. So frequently do I run into former (and current–*awkward*!) students that I sometimes long for total anonymity outside the classroom. Wonderful piece!

    Comment by Dean — March 7, 2013 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

  2. Can you top a former student being your assigned nurse for the maternity ward? Said nurse is holding my shoulders, telling me to curve my back for the epidural. At that point, I can see her name tag. I say, “Student Z from Waukegan High School?”. She says, “Hi Mrs. C, I recognized you the minute you came in but I didn’t want to embarrass you.”

    Best nurse on the floor. Being her bio teacher, I had quite the sense of pride that she ended up in a science career.

    Comment by Maureen — March 7, 2013 @ 11:38 pm | Reply

  3. You always hit these tricky points so dead on. I’ve struggled with this for years, for exactly the reasons you outlined above. When it first started happening, several years ago now, I would recognize former students’s faces but their names would be just gone. Utterly gone. Sometimes even just by the next semester. I felt so terrible, because I always make a point of remembering students’ names during the semester (which I know you’ve written about how hard that is, too.) How could I just forget these people once the semester was over? My joking take on it is there’s only room in my head for so many students at a time. Like you, I’ve often mused that some of this is tied to the fact that I work(ed) at what is functionally a commuter college peopled with students in transitions. Some stay, some go — but unlike some of my colleagues who teach full time in the disciplines, it’s rather unlikely I have a student more than once. I’m always happy when a student asks if they can take my 102 after they’ve been in my 101, but that’s it. I don’t get to form long-term relationships with most of my students. It’s not how I like it, but if I frame it in this way, it lets me off the hook for the guilt — a little. Thanks for a great post!

    Comment by Darlene McCarty Cohn (@dcohncomm) — March 8, 2013 @ 9:34 am | Reply

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