Can teachers be friends with former students?

Bestselling author of The Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick muses on his own experiences.

Matthew Quick is the bestselling author of The Silver Linings Playbook and  Love May Fail, about one woman's attempts to reconnect with a beloved high school English teacher. Here, he reflects upon his own failed friendships with former students and asks if such a relationship can ever succeed.

Mathew Quick smilinginfront of shelves of his books
Matthew Quick

When I was a young high school teacher, many of my students asked if we could perhaps have a beer together when they turned twenty-one, the legal drinking age here in The States. I always said, “Sure,” thinking they’d graduate and forget all about me.

Some did.

Some didn’t.

Three or four years into my teaching stint, I started bumping into former students at bars in and around Philadelphia. It usually played out like this: a drink arrives unordered and the server points out a familiar face at the other end of the room. A former student struts triumphantly over to me, all but screaming out the fact that he or she has finally reached the legal drinking age. I thank them for the free booze. We clink glasses like proper grown-ups. It’s thrilling for a brief moment. We both feel the shift. And then, after just one sip, the magic fizzles out. They try to use my first name, but can’t ever really pull it off. Eye contact eventually becomes impossible. I ask about their lives and they give me carefully edited updates that feel like answers to test questions. And then silence finally conquers all, at which point we hug awkwardly and part ways.

Sometimes former students contact me, specifically to schedule the promised drink. Again, there is much merriment at the beginning as we order and consume our first sips of alcohol, but then it begins to feel as though we are both fish flopping around on hot concrete and the inevitable silence becomes too crushing to stomach.

It puzzled me at first. I truly care about these former students; they initiate this drinking ritual. And yet, there is almost always something off about our interactions. It’s never the same as it once was, back in the classroom. And more times than not, it feels plain wrong.

There have been notable exceptions, but those are few and, somewhere along the way, I learned that, for the most part, teacher-student relationships have a shelf life.

I began teaching high school literature classes in 1997 and stopped in 2004, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about the above. I’ve come to believe that having a drink with your former high school teacher is – more often than not – a bit of a trap. My students initially fantasized about consuming alcohol with me because they wanted to be treated like adults when they were only teenagers. But as adults they drink with their former teacher hoping to time travel backward, to feel the way they did when they were in my class – like a kid again, even as they sit in a bar for adults. It’s a magic trick I’m seemingly incapable of pulling off, and I usually leave feeling as though I’ve disappointed terribly.

Just a few years ago, I sat down to a meal with a brilliant former student who is now a cardiologist. After he talked about my American Literature class at length, I said to him, “You do realize that when I taught you back then, I was much younger than you are now. I was just a kid myself!” It was a light bulb moment for me, because I immediately understood that this former student wasn’t seeing me in the present tense through the eyes of the successful thirty-something doctor he is, but would eternally see a mid-twenties version of me through the eyes of the hopeful sixteen-year-old kid he once was.

As I listened to him recall the lessons I taught fifteen-or-so years ago, I was extremely grateful for the chance to learn that my teaching had positively impacted his life; I also couldn’t help mourning the young man I once was – the green, wildly hopeful teacher my former students carry around in their memories.

My latest novel, Love May Fail, reunites Portia Kane with her high school English teacher, Mr. Nate Vernon, more than twenty years after they have last spoken. Portia uses the untested optimism of Nate Vernon’s youth against an older more pessimistic Vernon, asking him to perform a seemingly impossible magic trick.

Can a single student save her former teacher?

Or are we naïve to even hope for such things?

Love May Fail

by Matthew Quick

Book cover for Love May Fail

Portia Kane has escaped her cheating husband only to find herself back at square one, living with her mum in a place she thought she'd left behind forever. Lost and alone, looking to find the goodness she believes still exists in the world, Portia sets off to save herself by saving someone else - a beloved high school English teacher who has retired after a traumatic incident.

Love May Fail is out now in Paperback, Ebook and as an Audiobook.

The Silver Linings Playbook

Book cover for The Silver Linings Playbook

Pat Peoples knows that life doesn't always go according to plan, but he's determined to get his back on track. After a stint in a psychiatric hospital, Pat is staying with his parents and trying to live according to his new philosophy: get fit, be nice and always look for the silver lining. Most importantly, Pat is determined to be reconciled with his wife Nikki.

But when Pat befriends the mysterious Tiffany, the secrets they've been keeping from him threaten to come out . . .

The Silver Linings Playbook has been adapted into an Academy Award-winning film.

The Reason You're Alive

by Matthew Quick

Book cover for The Reason You're Alive

After sixty-eight-year-old David Granger crashes his BMW, medical tests reveal a brain tumor that he readily attributes to his wartime Agent Orange exposure. He wakes up from surgery repeating a name no one in his civilian life has ever heard - that of a Native American soldier whom he was once ordered to discipline. David decides to return something precious he long ago stole from the man he now calls Clayton Fire Bear. It might be the only way to find closure in a world increasingly at odds with the one he served to protect. It might also help him finally recover from his wife's untimely demise.

Through the controversial, wrenching, and wildly honest Vietnam war vereran David Granger, Matthew Quick offers a no-nonsense but ultimately hopeful view of America's polarized psyche. By turns irascible and hilarious, insightful and inconvenient, David is a complex, wounded, honorable, and ultimately loving man. The Reason You're Alive examines how the secrets and debts we carry from our past define us; it also challenges us to look beyond our own prejudices and search for the good in our supposed enemies.