It was May of my Senior year of college in 1982. Walking to Naples, the pizzeria near the Women’s Studies building, I noticed the trees in full leaf above my head. New Haven was lovely in the spring, and I was going to meet Harriet, my favorite professor. She was expecting a baby in a few months. When I saw her sitting in the window, the afternoon light golden around her auburn hair, she looked like a Renaissance Madonna.

It was with Harriet that I had read Virginia Woolf and Madwoman in the Attic. It was she who helped me learn how women’s voices had been marginalized in the canon. Harriet introduced me to Audre Lord; the novelist Gloria Naylor was in one of our Women’s Studies’ classes. While there were other teachers I adored in college, Harriet, in our small seminar room in a tiny building a little removed from the main part of Yale’s campus, had a gift for creating community, for encouraging us to claim our voices. Women’s Studies wasn’t even a real major yet, and though Harriet’s husband was on a tenure-track, I fumed that Harriet was not. Her comments on my essays helped me be braver on the page, helped me clarify my thinking. For her I wrote an autobiography, learning that what we choose not to include may be as significant as what we do set down on a page.

I was excited to share my news with her — I had been offered a teaching job for the fall at Northfield Mount Hermon, a boarding school in Massachusetts. While I know we must have talked about many things over my cappuccino and her herbal tea, this is what I remember, her intense blue gaze imprinting her words on my soul: 

“Always, remember, Annie, when you are a teacher, you are always a teacher in someone’s life because you were a teacher first.”

I nodded, but for years, I was not sure I understood what she meant. Of course, I was a teacher. In those early years of my career, deeply in love with everything to do with teaching, it never occurred to me that I would be anything but a teacher.  Assigned to be the dorm parent on a corridor filled with Junior, Senior and post-graduate boys — to this day, I suspect I was a clerical error — I wore my hair up every day and wore high heels, even though most faculty members at that New England boarding school wore corduroys and bulky sweaters. I was terrified the boys would realize how young I was, and perhaps because I was so young — only twenty-one when I started — was acutely aware of holding the boundary. I loved my kids, but I knew it was my job to be the grown up.  

I had studied how to teach English and had done my student teaching in college, but I still confused teaching with telling the students in my classes everything I knew. I marked their papers in green ink, correcting every comma, asking for better textual support, suggesting ways sentences might be clearer. I was tough — another hallmark of  being young. I think back on those early years and shudder a bit at how I mistook being demanding for retaining my authority. Still, the kids were patient with me, rising to my high standards and teaching me, along the way, how to be a better teacher.

It was a number of years before any of my “kids” grew up enough for us to forge a relationship not focused on the English classroom or on a play we had made together. I freeze the kids I taught at the age I taught them, a funny trick of time. While I see them post photographs of babies or accomplishments and know that they are growing older, somehow, they exist in two dimensions: past and present. Last year, meeting up  with a beloved former student, I choked on my latté when he mentioned his wife was older than I. How could that be, I wondered, until I worked out the math. Paul had been sixteen in Sophomore English. I had been twenty-two. Five years is not the enormous distance it seemed when I taught Ethan Frome to him and his best friend, Sterling, in Stone Hall so long ago.  Still, in my mind, he was still that boy who asked me to come to watch him play lacrosse, the boy for whom I’d bought a book of poetry I’d annotated to give him when I left because I sensed, from his journal entries, that he had a poet’s soul.  

This year, over spring vacation, past and present collided when my husband and several other teachers and I took a group of fifteen Upper School girls from the school I lead in Ohio to NYC for a “backstage tour.” Our days were filled with libraries and theatre and museums. Four of my former Chapin girls are now best-selling authors or journalists, and we had a literary soiree with them. A number of former students from the Ensemble Theatre Community School (ETC), the summer theatre program my husband and I ran for 27 summers, talked to us about their lives as actors and theatre professionals. Two young alums from earlier in my time at Laurel School spoke about working in TV and in the Yiddish theatre. Another Chapin alumna gave us a private tour of an exhibition she curated at the Museum of the City of New York, and an old friend from my own school days invited my students into a private collection focused on Percy Bysshe Shelley at the New York Public Library. 

Watching all these  grown-ups I had known when they were as young as my current students swept me through a time-telescope. I saw them as they were in high school: plaid kilts for the Chapin girls; stage blacks for the kids from ETC, a slightly different plaid for the Laurel girls. They were adults, but in my memory, they were reading Beloved with me in English or making a play about a ladies’ magazine, or lying on the floor of the Fire Hall in Eagles Mere. For some, I had  been a trusted confidante or mentor, applauding  their personal and professional triumphs — best-selling novels, Broadway productions, marriages, babies, new jobs.

Watching them, I beamed and may have wept a little at the way they spoke about having known my husband and me during an earlier chapter of our lives. I was, too, all at once, all the ages I had ever been — a wide-eyed girl in a girls’ school; a college student confiding in a beloved professor; a young teacher, and now, a seasoned headmistress, on the cusp of retirement and my own next chapter. Harriet’s gentle admonishment echoed in my ears — no matter who I am now, to them, I am their teacher.

Harriet is a writer of magnificent novels. Once, a few years after college, when I had moved to NYC, seeing that she was giving a reading on 86th Street at the Barnes and Noble, I went, watching her eyes grow wide when she saw me. I hugged her afterwards, so proud that she had been my teacher. Now, the two of us are Facebook friends, and I follow her life from a distance with so much love, thrilled when she comments on a post of mine, or when I see all that her own daughter, not yet born that May day, has accomplished in the theatre. 

To be connected once a chapter has ended — teacher and student, student and teacher — is a privilege, a gift. Forty-two years later, Harriet, I understand. There is a reverence, a sacred trust in being first a teacher.