High school teaching is a lifetime behind me now, but I remember noticing one significant change when I moved into a college classroom--there was vastly less dependency. College kids weren't so emotionally needy, it seemed, or at least I didn't come heir to a thousand daily anxieties. "Mr. Schaap--I don't know that I trust Mark--you can't believe who he was talking to just now." That sort of thing.
And bigger stuff too--brawls with parents, love dashed dinghy-like in a storm, aspirations mauled. College kids didn't need a professor like high school kids needed a teacher.
Of course, I was younger then. When I started teaching I was four years older than kids in the chairs. Today those kids are frozen solid in my mind at 17 years old. Not long ago, one of them sent me the date of their 40th class reunion, reminding me I couldn't miss. They won't be 17 any more. They're Wisconsin kids--they'll be as porky as their ex-teacher, round and paunchy, gray and bald. I won't recognize them.
If the truth be known, some of that needy-ness I missed when I started teaching in college. Oh, it could be tedious--"so-and-so hasn't talked to me all day!" I didn't miss that, but college students were buying a commodity--your class. It was costing them money, after all. It was nice if they liked you, but what they needed was the credit, not you. Sometimes, I felt bereft.
But just a week ago, I fell back in, not because I went back to some high school classroom, but because a ex-student of mine grabbed me in the hall in a way I haven't been needed for a long, long time. In class, hers were the kind of eyes that have kept me in the teaching profession--bright, begging eyes that made it perfectly clear, morning after morning, that she was more than ready to listen if I was ready to teach. "Go on," those eyes would say, "do it. Let's explore something. I'm in."
Age creates a species of invisibility that I'm still not accustomed to. Yesterday, in the gym, on the bike, I was surrounded by ex-students, none of them even nodded toward me. I don't think they dislike me. It's just that the old guy just doesn't show up on their radar.
Anyway, about a week ago this sweet kid grabbed me in a way I haven't been grabbed in years. Gratifying, I guess, for a geezer.
"Dr. Schaap," she said, "guess what?"
She didn't, immediately, thrust her left hand into my face to show me a diamond. That happens.
I had no idea what.
"I just saw a baby being born. I was there."
And then she stood there in silence. I hadn't a clue how to react. No kid ever said that to me before, but that was big news that spilled from her soul. Her eyes were the diamonds.
Not once before did a kid rush up to me and announce as if to the world that she'd just seen life begin. Of course, I haven't had that many students in a nursing program.
I've got an old file cabinet down here, picked it up in Arizona for $10. Somewhere inside in two separate files are scribbled notes from high school kids in Wisconsin and Arizona, notes I just couldn't toss once upon a time. We're selling our house now, and the stuff's got to go. Today, there's incentive and emotional distance--it won't be hard to toss those folders, even though I'm sure I'll read every note before I do.
I'm thinking this hallway announcement, this little explosion of joy the other day, an event I was blessed to be privy to, that's the one that will stand for all the others. What this young lady witnessed that morning, the morning she couldn't not tell me, was nothing less than the very beginning of life itself.
That big, that memorable, that sweet.