It’s the day before school begins.
I’m out to eat with my family and have just taken a big bite of a juicy beef taco.
That’s when I notice someone standing right next to me at the restaurant.
So I raise my eyes upward, a meat filled tortilla overfilled with lettuce and beans hanging from my mouth, and I’m greeted with a familiar face.
“Mr. Singer!” the woman says with a nervous smile on her lips.
“Do you remember me?”
I think for a moment but realize I have more pressing concerns. I couldn’t reply with an answer to the woman’s question even if I did remember her.
So I chew and swallow and then look again.
“It’s me,” she says. “Tamarind.”
And then it hits me like a flash.
The face in front of me ages backward. The adult eyes soften. The taut cheeks become chubbier. And her whole figure shrinks three feet closer to the ground.
“Oh my God! Tamarind! Of course I remember you!” I say.
She smiles and blushes. I’m surprised by how nervous she is. I’m no one to inspire anxiety. I’m just a guy out with his wife, daughter and father-in-law shoving a taco in his face.
“When I saw you here I just had to come up to you,” she said. “I was in your 6th grade class.”
“I think it was 8th grade, wasn’t it?” I said.
“Yes! That’s right! Eighth grade!”
“How old are you now? My gosh I remember you when you only came up to here off the ground.”
“I’m 22. I’m doing really well. I just wanted you to know that you taught me how to write. If it wasn’t for you I never would have made it anywhere. I just wanted to thank you so much for everything you did for me.”
We chatted a bit more and then she left us to finish our meal.
But, of course, the whole interaction got me thinking.
As a teacher, you are something of a minor public figure.
When you’re out and about – especially if you’re somewhere in your district – you’re bound to be recognized and invariably someone will want to chat.
I remember one time at the bakery counter a former student gave me my order and told me he threw in a few donuts.
I remember laughing and telling him he didn’t need to do that.
“Nah, Mr. Singer, you never wrote me up for falling asleep in your class. You knew I was watching my brothers and sisters at home and never gave me shit for it. You keep those donuts.”
Another time at the theater I was almost late to my movie because I was listening to a former student at the concession stand catch me up on her life and what all of her friends from my class were doing these days.
So many students. So many kids that have now become adults.
You lose track of how many lives you’ve had an impact on.
The first few days of school are always filled with endless administrative meetings. The superintendent welcomes you with testing data. Then your principal breaks it down by building and subject.
You find out which diagnostic exams you have to give your students and when. You find out what your Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment Score (PVAAS) is – how good a teacher you are based on how well your students from last year did on the state standardized test.
On the one hand, I suppose I have no reason to feel like much of a good teacher.
Most of my students didn’t pass the test. They rarely do.
The same number of 7th graders (that’s what I taught last year) passed the reading test as in previous years. However, many more passed that were expected to fail.
The state uses a mystery metric based on Classroom Diagnostic Assessment (CDT) data to come up with a prediction of who they expect to pass and who they expect to fail. No one really knows how they calculate this. For all we know, the state secretary of education could examine a pile of chicken entrails before entering it all into the system.
Does all that data mean I’m a good teacher or not?
I don’t know.
But I do know what Tamarind thinks.
And I know what a host of former students have told me. I know how they react when they see me out in the wild, just living my life.
I’m sure there are probably former students who don’t like me. There must be those who hold a grudge for getting a 59% on an assignment. Or maybe they remember me yelling at them for something. Or – who knows – maybe they just didn’t respond to The Singer Charm.
But an awful lot of people come up to me who don’t have to.
Yesterday was the first day of classes for the year.
For the first time, all my classes were looped. I taught 7th grade Language Arts last year and I’m teaching the 8th grade course this year.
When those kids came into the class on Friday, it was like a homecoming.
So many smiles. So much laughter and joy. And, yes, impromptu hugs.
It felt like a family gathering, not a school function.
As I left the building feeling more exhausted than I have in months, another teacher stopped me.
“Steve! I wanted to catch you before you left!” she said.
She told me that she gave her students a survey in her class as an icebreaker. One of the questions was to name their favorite teacher from last year. My name came up a lot.
What can you say about that?
I’m actually getting choked up just typing this.
In my years in the classroom, I’ve helped a lot of kids get better test scores.
But that’s not why they come up to me. That’s not why they remember me.
I touched their lives in some meaningful way.
And they have done the same for me.
I’m just a guy who should really take smaller bites of his tacos.
But they make me feel like a hero.
I am so grateful.
Like this post? I’ve written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!
WANT A SIGNED COPY?