On Forgetting Old Students

Jude looks up his old teacher Philottson

Jude looks up his old teacher Philottson

Monday

Classes begin today and I am certain to undergo an embarrassment that occurs every semester: I will fail to remember the names of certain former students, including students that I taught last semester.

It’s become so predictable that I now warn my classes that it will happen. “Just give me a couple of hints and you will come flooding back to me,” I tell them. Sometimes the hint I need is the essay that they wrote for me, which I can often remember in meticulous detail. Faces and names, unfortunately, are a different matter.

Therefore, I found myself empathizing with Phillotson, Jude’s old teacher in the Thomas Hardy novel, when Jude looks him up years later. Jude only had a few night classes with this teacher, yet Phillotson lit a divine spark within the boy. Here’s the scene of their separation:

“I shan’t forget you, Jude,” he said, smiling, as the cart moved off. “Be a good boy, remember; and be kind to animals and birds, and read all you can. And if ever you come to Christminster remember you hunt me out for old acquaintance’ sake.”

And now here’s their encounter some 20 or so years later when Jude does in fact hunt him out:

“I don’t remember you in the least,” said the school-master thoughtfully. “You were one of my pupils, you say? Yes, no doubt; but they number so many thousands by this time of my life, and have naturally changed so much, that I remember very few except the quite recent ones.”

“It was out at Marygreen,” said Jude, wishing he had not come.

“Yes. I was there a short time.” 

Jude and Phillotson go on to become adult friends and then rivals, but the old teacher can never fully appreciate how large he loomed in Jude’s young life.

But that’s okay. Teaching is such a hit and miss operation that we never know who we are touching and who escapes unscathed. Teachers are a bit like Queequag in Moby Dick, who constructs the coffin that eventually, as a life buoy, saves Ishmael. We don’t know what impact our teaching will have—it sometimes feels like we are throwing a box randomly into the sea—but it means everything to the person who grasps hold of it.

What we can do is make every effort to reach out to our students. Then, regardless of whether we remember them or not, we won’t be surprised to learn that we made a difference in their lives.

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