Every now and again, I meet old students around town. Sometimes, I remember them clearly; other times, I am vaguely aware of the face but otherwise in the dark.
Once I was walking near the college when a car pulled up at a traffic light a little along the road. A head popped out of the passenger window and turned back to me, "Daaaave!" I raised an uncertain hand and waved awkwardly. The shout came again, "You were my best teacher! How are you?" Then the lights changed and the car tore off, taking the lolling head away into the traffic with it. I didn't have time to whisper, "Confused..." To this day, I still have no idea who that was but I took the praise anyway as I stood in the wheels’ dust while the car sped away.
At the end of some academic years, some teachers' desks are festooned: cards, gifts, flowers, balloons, torn envelopes strewn. Their overburdened cars scrape against the tarmac as they haul their booty home, while others' desks remain resolutely clear. It is hard to predict who will be this year's prime recipient of gratitude. One year, it might be you; the next year, your desk is a moonscape. One year it's the kind teacher; the next year, it's the stern-faced disciplinarian even other teachers fear. Student thanks are as unpredictable as government policy or a British Bank Holiday and as surprising as a pay rise.
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Maybe I am simply particularly needy but I do like getting cards from students at the end of the year. It is a sign of something, at least, even if it’s just that a parent thought to buy a card. Most students will walk away without a backward glance, maybe muttering a mumbled thanks if you’re lucky.
But some will linger after the last lesson to shyly present you with a card, or sometimes something more. When the student cards do come your way, it's important to accept them, and not just brush them aside politely or privately dismiss them as secretly insincere. Goodness knows teachers get little enough thanks. So when it does come, we should welcome it.
One year, a parent prepared a little gift box for me: tea bags, biscuits, a mug, a card. It was clearly the leftovers from an unwanted Christmas hamper, but I was grateful, even in July. Another year, some students bought me a few books. I was really touched by that, as much by the kind inscriptions as the actual books themselves. They still sit on a shelf at home.
Cards: messages of thanks, of praise
In a fit of nostalgia, a while back I dug out some of my old cards, written many years ago by students I no longer recall, and who may no longer recall me much either. But our paths did cross for a few years and I did help those people along their way. Like a rock that orbits a planet for just a little time before being flung off into its own trajectory, those students circled around me for a brief while. Then the students became the masters. Reading the cards again was a delight, messages of thanks, of praise. A few remembrances of particular lessons, or particular phrases they recalled or class in-jokes we all shared.
It allowed me to look back a little bit and see there behind me just a few of the footsteps in the snow, when others have already melted and or are starting to fade and go. It let me see that those years which now all bleed into one for me, those students whose faces fade and whose names become hazy, nonetheless somehow remain with me. The gratitude I read in those old cards was gratifying even now. Enough to soften even this cynical old heart.
This year, a few of my colleagues’ desks were buckling under the weight of their cards. The Estates crew were concerned: metal bracing might have been required, it was thought, along with reinforced flooring. My desk initially had a single sad card standing alone, a solitary primary-coloured supermarket-bought affair with an impersonal monosyllabic message inside. It wasn’t a bumper crop, but that’s OK, next year might be my year again. And I will keep this one card anyway.
My advice is to keep the cards. Maybe not all of them if you're this year's favourite, but a sprinkling, a representative sample, a smattering of gratitude. We all need a smattering of gratitude sometimes. Despite the fact you may not be able to quite believe all the effusive student comments that were clearly written in the heat of a moment of heightened emotion at a difficult year's eventual end, don't throw those cards away.
Keep some and tuck them away somewhere safe. And one day, in an age far from now and distant from here, take a moment to pull them out and read them again. Like the speaker in Derek Walcott’s wonderful poem Love After Love, feast on your life. You'll be reminded that you did make a difference. You did have an impact. Those long hours and stressful days were worth it, after all. And every now and then, when the fire is guttering or the vision is waning, take the cards out and read them again. Maybe they’ll remind you why you’re working in that classroom every day, doing what you do. I will tuck my single card away and then I’m off to track down the car that left me in the lurch.
David Murray is an English teacher at City of Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College