Last night, The Beacon School, the first school I ever taught at, had a 20th anniversary party to celebrate its founding in 1993. Former teachers and staff were invited, former students up to the class of 2010 were invited, and all told over 300 people got together at the Alhambra Ballroom on Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard in NYC for an evening of memories, food and drink, and (sadly) far too loud music for these old ears. I left Beacon at the end of the 2002-2003 school year, to take a job closer to home in New Jersey. I was not sure what to expect of a reunion like this, to be honest - I didn't know who would be there, who I'd remember or not, and frankly, who'd remember me.
It was, to put it mildly, an amazing night. What made it so extraordinary was not the former colleagues who I had a chance to reconnect with, although I enjoyed that immensely. No, what was truly extraordinary was meeting my former students who are now, for example:
- working as a construction project manager in NYC after getting their engineering degree;
- working as lawyers for (a) the DA's office in Brooklyn, (b) tenant's rights projects in Queens;
- working on environmental justice projects with various nonprofit agencies;
- working for the NYCLU;
- writing poetry, plays, short stories, and prose;
- working with one of my former colleagues as a writer for an upcoming NBC comedy;
- being a personal trainer;
- selling insurance in Florida;
- being a math teacher;
- being a fourth grade teacher in Brooklyn;
- working for the Manhattan borough president;
- being a senior consultant at Accenture;
...and hearing of countless others attending law school, medical school, business school - doing their best, growing up, and being the adults we teachers more than a decade ago dreamed they would become someday.
I spent most of my night remembering things. Remembering how rotten a teacher I was at the beginning, and how poorly I did by many of my students in many ways back then; but also remembering how much I learned over that brief (I can say that now, with a decade of distance) four-year stretch. And how much better I got as time went on. I learned how to back up and try different approaches if something didn't work well; I learned how to be patient when it was called for, which was 99.44% of the time; I learned how to talk with students, not AT or TO them. Those kids - now, these young adults - taught me infinitely more than I ever taught them.
Seeing them last night, and remembering things - "Hey, Mr. Thayer, are you still doing the 30-question final exam where we got to pick the questions?"; "Do you remember our class when the first plane hit the World Trade Center?"; "Do you remember me?"
I remember it all. My past was there last night, and I am grateful for my past. I feel like lately I've lost the ability to translate that past into my present - it is so easy to become discouraged, as a teacher, about what is coming and what is happening in education, that it becomes equally easy to forget how you got to where you are now. Long ago I learned from those Beacon kids, many of whom are now about the age I was when I started teaching them, that the future is what you make it. I'd forgotten that lesson but promise them - and all of my students - that I will do my best to remember it going forward.