by Susanne Stefani
Confession time. I check my work e-mail during the summer.
Rather than indicating a hyper-dedication to the profession, I believe that logging in when campus is closed is actually a symptom of a larger issue: it’s tough to completely disconnect from teaching. About 250 students cycle through my classes each year, and those relationships spark constant memories for me long after they’re gone. Even during summer, which is, ideally, a mental hiatus from all things school, I’m reminded daily of students with whom I’ve crossed paths.
When fortune cookies accompany my Chinese take-out, I think of Sherry, who gave me a fortune cookie constructed of foam and puff paint. Whenever I see a cat-related comic, I think of Ian; he’s a cat lover, so I’d post pro-dog cartoons just to taunt him. On a comedy show last night, the comedienne’s voice and demeanor made me think of Ellen, who greeted me daily with an affable “Good morrow!” Thus, I can’t make it through a summer day without a student-related recollection. And that’s a good thing, mostly, but the last couple of summers conjure up memories of two students who have passed away.
Ben and I had a rocky start, to put it far too gently, his sophomore year. In one heated moment, he yelled something including the f-word at me and slammed the classroom door louder than I’ve ever heard a door slam (and I was once an experienced door-slammer myself). I won some respect when, at conferences, I told his father I liked Ben (it was a lie at the time), thought he was smart, and wished that we could get along better. After that, we did. Ben had an easy smile and was one of many kids who, I felt, was just in high school at the wrong time; perhaps if he could come back when he was forty, he’d get the hang of it. Fast forward to graduation: he smiled and pumped his fist at me on his way up to the stage, and seeing him having made it—despite myriad obstacles—made all of our early clashes worthwhile.
Shayla was a junior among many freshmen in my Intro to Peer Mentoring class. Initially out of her element, she won over her peers with humor and a straightforward, no-nonsense personality. Shayla let her guard down, eventually sharing her deepest regrets and her driving passions. For a presentation, the object she chose to represent herself was a set of car keys with a deeply personal story; her honesty and vulnerability held us all rapt that day. And I’ll always remember Shayla as the first student who made me feel old. During a project, she and her classmate were trying to figure out how to bring in a rap song they were going to record. “If you put it on a CD, I can play it for you,” I offered, trying to be accommodating. “A CD, Ms. Stefani? Seriously?!” She and her partner giggled for several minutes at my expense, while I excused myself to go chisel some notes on a stone tablet.
Ben died in a motorcycle crash; Shayla, in an all-terrain vehicle accident. I remember Ben whenever conferences roll around, and there’s a popular country song that reminds me of Shayla. But I think the summers will bring them to mind for a while as well.
The break from school is halfway over. Sure, I’ve organized my dresser drawers, seriously contemplated yard work, and have even re-learned how to drink coffee without gulping, but a little slice of my head is always swarming with students. And sometimes, someone pops into my mind and stays awhile, bringing my thoughts back to the classroom and tugging me a little closer to fall.
Susanne Stefani is a writer and creative writing teacher at McNary High School.