It was a Friday night and my 1-year old was spending the night at his grandparents. My husband and I could do whatever we wanted. And what did I want to do? Go to bed early.
I often turn to my teacher-friends to validate this overwhelming desire to starfish on the bed with a bag of Chex Mix and a movie that I won’t finish after I put my son to bed at 8:00. And validation I get. They remind me of how exhausting our job is, of how taxing it is to be “on” every hour of every day for a week and how necessary it is to just “veg out”once
in a while a week.
All of this is to establish the exposition of why, the first Friday of April, it was such a momentous occasion that I was going out. Earlier in the week (when Friday still seemed exciting and my energy battery was full), My best friend – who is also a teacher – and I made plans to go have a drink at a trendy downtown bar. An hour before we were supposed to meet we were texting back and forth, each waiting to see if the other would cancel and succumb to sweatpants and sleep. Neither of us caved. And so at around 8:00 I found myself proudly squishing through the bar, looking for where my friend could be sitting.
After not having any luck I pushed my way sideways through the crowd back to front. I did a quick scan of the people coming in and met eyes with someone who seemed to be staring directly at me. I looked over each of the my shoulders, but no one was looking in the guy’s general direction. When I looked back, he was still staring. And then he waved. Like a cartoon character, I pointed at myself and gave a quizzical look. He smiled and started making his way over.
My brain began flipping through memories like a toddler scanning through an iPhone photo gallery. He had one of those hipster haircuts that was long on top and shaved around the edge and it made me think of college and people trying hard to look individualistic. Was this someone who had gone to the same college as me? Was this someone who knew my ex-boyfriend, the drummer who wore girl jeans and was in a band? He was in front of me and I still had no idea who this person was.
The realization hit me and I felt like I just walked into a glass door. He was a former student that I had taught close to five years ago.
“You are Mrs. Vanek, right?” he asked, smiling.
“It’s me, Jack. You were my language arts teacher?”
I nodded and smiled. “Hi! How are you? What are you doing-” I looked around at the bar, “here?”
“Oh, my friends and I,” he nodded over his shoulder at a group of kids huddled near the door, “just got done doing this Escape thing and were going to get some food. You know, I thought that was you!”
I expected my first adult night out in a while to be filled with plans about my friend’s upcoming wedding and reenactments of funny memories gone by. Instead, it began with my former student’s plans for the spring – varsity baseball – and memories from when I had been his teacher – “…and you tried to direct us in that play but it was a disaster?” He continued talking about school and the different activities he was up to, and I used his first pause to do the ultimate conversation back-out. I took out my phone and pretended it was ringing.
“You know, this is my friend who I am meeting. I should probably go. Nice to see you, have a great rest of the year.” I turned around and walked a few steps into the crowd.
This wasn’t the first time I had run into a student outside of school. There were numerous times when I saw them at the mall or throwing boxes of fruit snacks into their mothers’ grocery carts. So what was it about this experience that resonated to strongly with me? My friend hit the nail on the head when she showed up an I told her the story.
“You just got Mrs.Vanek-ed?” she said. “You’re old.”
It had been a night when I was trying to feel young, and the one thing happen that made me feel aged and out of my element.
Teaching is unique because it can trap you in a time bubble. After all, year after year the 7th graders that you teach will still be 13 and the kindergartners entering your school for the first time will still be 5. While you may be aging, that’s not what you see every day. Instead, you stare at a class of expectant faces who remain the same age.
It’s not until little thing happen – like having to ask your students if saying hashtag is “still a thing” or running into a former student at a bar – when you realize that whether it feels like it or not, this whole time that you’ve been pushing these young kids to grow, you’ve been growing too.