Back in the 1970s when I first entered the field of education, the following quote by historian and intellectual Henry Adams was everywhere, “A teacher affects eternity, he can never tell where his influence stops.”
While I may not have totally understood its meaning then, now, closing in on almost five decades as a teacher, I finally get it. And it is my many students and their parents who have shown me that in fact, the influence of a teacher, or in the case of the Little Folks School, the influence of a community, never stops.
What Stands Out After Many Years
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t hear from one of my former students or their parents. Like my former sixth grade student, now in his forties, who reached out to me on Facebook to share that my name had come up when a group of friends from Washington Elementary School in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, had a mini-reunion.
When I expressed my surprise that he remembered me, he wrote the following: “Absolutely, your uniqueness made you memorable. You weren’t in the ‘cookie-cutter’ mold of most teachers of that day.” I shared with him that, in fact, it had been my first year of teaching, and that I was struggling to balance the demands of teaching and my life as a young adult.
He responded, “You did a lot of things right, and you should be proud of that… as time went on, I grew to appreciate the qualities you had and the person you showed us. We were fortunate to be in your classroom.”
Besides being incredibly touched, I had a renewed appreciation for all teachers, especially parents who after all, are the first teachers. And for the first time in almost five decades, I remembered the Henry Adams quote. I also realized that the greatest gift we can receive from our children and students is the reminder that we have touched them in meaningful ways.
When this week a former parent of one of my former students shared a photograph on Facebook of her son, his best friend and another student, (all former students of mine at the Little Folks School) who have reunited in South Africa for a college semester abroad, I was given that gift. Her message that 19 years later, these three young adults still had the connection that they forged in my nursery school class, filled me with joy.
Connections and Memories Run Deep
Unfortunately, at times the communication from former families is triggered by sad events, like illness or death. When current fifth-grader Aidan visited Washington from California to attend a memorial service, his mother made time for him to connect with former Little Folks friends, E.J, who lives in DC, and Nicholas who was visiting from Boston. Watching these middle school boys sit and talk, years after they first met and long after they had all moved on to other schools, and in this case, other cities brought tears to my eyes.
I had the good fortune to speak recently with one of them, 13-year-old Nicholas (who moved from Washington, DC, to Boston several years ago) about his memories of E.J. and Aidan, friends he made at his DC Nursery School. What he had to say painted a vivid picture of what I like to call, a community connected.
He said, “I have memories of playing with E.J. that don’t include just the experience, but the sound of it, like the Little Folks School songs we sang at Circle Time and also specific objects like the playground slide and the kiddie pool at Summer Camp.” He recalled specifically how his teachers hooked up a hose to the playground equipment to make a water slide and that that was their favorite thing to do all summer long.
I seemed to remember that he was a bit older than Aidan, and maybe didn’t attend Nursery School at the same time. “That’s right,” he said, “but I did help give him a tour when he and his family visited, so that connected us right away, also, we have the same birthday. I always thought of him as my sort of brother because of that!” Nicholas went on to describe how their paths continued to cross in what often feels like the small town of Washington, DC.
He pointed out to me that his memory of the school and for that matter the city, is that (in his words) “it’s a place where age doesn’t matter. Everyone is friends with everyone… the teachers, the parents, and the kids.” When I asked Nicholas what friendships, old and new, meant to him, he replied, “we can talk about anything, and with certain old friends it isn’t just a social connection, but a spiritual one, too. It’s strong like a family.”
As a teacher, I can’t imagine a greater reward than this poignant description of his memories. When former students and parents reach out to connect with me and each other, I glimpse an eternal force that binds us and an influence that knows no bounds, and I am filled with gratitude.