Martha Gellhorn wrote in her book, The View From The Ground, “the trouble with the traveling life is that you never know the end of the stories.” As a war correspondent, she was reporting on how people across Europe were coping in the aftermath of WWII. As a teacher, her observation made me think about my former students. I got to know them well when I was teaching them but, except for a few, I do not know the end of their stories.
As most professors and teachers, I have had many students over my 40+ years in academia. Some were degree students who I saw repeatedly over a semester, others were corporate executives who came to short courses in the business school. I did not keep count of how many there were. I should have, and I probably should have made greater efforts to stay in touch with them as well. Very few are still on my radar screen. Looking back, I wonder what became of all my students. How did their stories end?
One of the many wonderful things about teaching is that your students never get older. If you teach MBAs, they are usually all in their mid twenties, every year. Undergrads arrive on campus in their late teens, every year. Successive generations come into your field of vision at exactly the same age, year after year. That keeps you connected to the times as your own years roll on.
A rude awakening comes on the day that you telł a story in class and you see all the eyes go blank. It takes a while but then it dawns on you: the students in front of you weren’t even born yet when that story happened! From their perspective, you just stepped back into history. Every teacher has that experience and we can all remember exactly when it happened and what the story was that we were sharing. Mine was about being on Tiananmen in early June, 1989. An experience that had a profound impact on me but one that my students did not live. Your students keep you young with their energy and bliss, but they also mark the times and occasionally remind you that you are getting on in years.
With the recent publication of my new book, Rough Diamonds (https://geni.us/RoughDiamonds), I came in contact again with one of my first MBA students. We had not been in touch for almost 40 years. Her life had moved on as well: married, kids, a professional career, and currently leading a fascinating social program. After so many years, we had a lot to catch up on. That experience got me thinking about what might have happened to all the other students that I had taught over my academic career. How did their stories end? In almost every case, I do not know.
When you reflect on your past, a few people and experiences always stand out. More often than not, they were not that meaningful at the time but turned out to be defining in one way or another. In my book, Rough Diamonds, I write about those who, without them knowing and me realizing it at that time, had a tremendous impact on me. Experience makes us understand our own story.
I dedicated Rough Diamonds to all those who gave me opportunities to make mistakes. There are not many and I wrote to all of them after I published my book. I wanted them to know how grateful I was and explain to them in what way they had impacted me. I wanted them to know my story and where their thumbprints had left a distinctive mark. Thinking about my former students, how did their stories end? Did I leave a mark on them in any way?
I typically don’t check the backgrounds of my students. If they don’t reveal it to me, I just don’t know. Naturally, familiar-sounding names catch my attention but I won’t go any further. I did have a couple of students who enrolled with fake names (including one with security detail around her posing as classmates!) but I did not know about all that until much later. Every student comes with a story, but I would only know it if they revealed it to me. Whoever they were or wherever they came from, they were my students and they all deserved the very best of me.
We all have a story. As the author Brad Meltzer writes: “Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” I never poked into the lives of my students. I shared with them what I was up to when we met, and if they had a story to tell I would listen. As I write in my book, teaching requires a lot of listening because the better you know your students, the more effective your teaching can and will be.
Many students had stories that affected their ability to focus and learn. Some would share them with me. They just wanted – and often needed – to share what they were battling. For others, I could see that there was a story but they wanted to keep it to themselves. Perhaps, it was too painful or they felt embarrassed about it. Even if they did not share their story, I could see that demons made the needle on their compass spin.
Thinking back and drafting this blog, one particular student came to mind. Gavin. I had not thought about him for years but the shadow of his story was still haunting me. Gavin had a story, but he never told me what it was. He knew that I suspected something was amiss but he never opened up. He treated me with respect but he kept his cards close to his chest. I did not poke into his life but send all the signals that I was there in case he wanted to talk. As an educator and teacher, you just have to be available to your students. Always.
An experience many teachers have is that there are so many students out there with no outlet for whatever is haunting or torturing them. Gavin puzzled me because he was smart, mature, and quite social. Academically, however, he was batting well below his average. Students who have what it takes but can’t bring it to bear have always caught my attention. Part of it is that we typically see more of the opposite: students who do not have it but think they do and behave as if the world owes them for it.
Gavin might have been a few years older that his classmates. In terms of intellect, he was in his own league but lived in a world with demons who I never got to know. A few things caught my attention early on. I was teaching multiple sections of the same course on the same day, and he would rarely show up for his section if it was scheduled early in the day. When he did show up, he would often have glassy eyes. When I talked to him (mostly after class, because I do not recall him ever coming to my office), he often had a smell of alcohol on his breath, no matter what time of the day it was. He had grown up in the US and his parents had sent him overseas to finish his college education. I suspected that he had run into problems back home and his parents had shipped him off to finish his college education abroad.
As a teacher, you cannot be judgmental about your students. In the case of Gavin, I felt sorry. He clearly had a substance abuse problem and a past that had dragged him into that. Whatever his demons were, they were torturing him but he kept up a good front. He did graduate, but I do not know where he went after that. I hope he sought help and got it. How did his story end?
Students come into focus when you teach them and most fade away as soon as they graduate. You hope you made a difference in their lives. A few will stay in touch but most will move on. As a teacher, you just focus on the next batch coming through the door and start all over again. You are part of all of their the stories but you rarely know how their stories end.