Can teachers be friends with their former students?
Bestselling author of The Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick muses on his own experiences.
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.
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?