Last Sunday, I woke up to a note from a student I taught at Lower Canada College 15 years ago. And it made me wonder – what makes a student wake up and write to an old teacher? What are the moments that stand out, years later?
Ryan was part of a student trip to China that Kevin and I lead one March break, and we got to know his group of friends really well. You tend to bond when you experience places like the Great Wall and the Mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor (home of the terracotta warriors). But he didn’t write about our trip. Ryan was a very good student, and I taught his brother and got to know his parents as well. But he didn’t write about anything that ever happened during a class. The truth is, if you had asked me years ago, to identify the student who would write to me out of the blue 15 years later, I am not sure that Ryan would have topped the list.
So why did a former student wake up in February and write to an old teacher? With his permission, I share it here:
Hi Mrs Kee,
I was thinking about our long-term character flaws you asked us to work on.
Pete was compassion, Dave was chill, I was leadership and Joe was step up. I wonder how we all did on our various projects. I asked Dave and he said he is not much more chill. I think Joe has certainly stepped up as he is going to medical school which is quite a challenge. Not sure about Pete’s compassion (although he did send me a very nice note when he skipped my wedding).
With regards to my trait of leadership, I would have been even more specific and said that I needed to work on assertiveness (an element of leadership). Sometimes I have the tendency to be too passive instead of grabbing the bull by the horns. I probably have improved since grade 11 though.
Hope you are doing well at the new school. Patti MacDonald sent me your new email address.
If you still want, I can try to organize a reunion (I can take the “lead” on that).
He is writing about a conversation that we had had, along with his group of friends. It was actually a moment I also remember well, as does Kevin, which is remarkable given all of the students in both of our lives over the years. This is a conversation that happened for two reasons – we knew each other well and we had opportunity to talk about something meaningful. Time is key here.
I’m reading the new book by the Heath brothers, The Power of Moments, and they ask a question that I find compelling – what if a teacher could design a lesson that students would remember twenty years later?
Ryan’s letter is a good example of the power of moments. I’m not sure, however, that moments are easily created. I would not want curriculums all over the world to include a “life conversation”, thinking you can create a meaningful connection as if there was some kind of superficial magical formula. The Heath brothers are talking about Disney; I am talking about having the kind of talks you can only have with people who know each other, over time.
For teenagers, what they want – and need! – are adults who get to know them and take the time to challenge their thinking. In the case of my conversation with Ryan, it was authentic – and clearly turned out to be memorable – because you had people spending time together and actually speaking to one another about real issues that mattered.
We are all busy. Most of us feel that we are too busy. But this email is a powerful reminder that we need to slow down, put our phones away, and spend time connecting with each other. And then for the moments to really be memorable? We need to connect again and again, so when the chance to have a life conversation happens, we won’t even know it is a life conversation, because it is just what we do.
Thank you, Ryan, for this reminder.