For All My Old Students

Just yesterday, my little hometown lost a beloved old coach and teacher. In a town whose population hovers around 10,000, I’d be willing to bet that just about everyone in Vidalia knew Coach Cravey–and if you didn’t know him firsthand, you’ve certainly been told some of the stories that made him a legend: stories about chewing tobacco, 8th grade P.E., his white towel and rolled-up pants leg. Chances are he trailed behind you as you slogged around the road course, honking the horn of the beaten-up little car he drove like a dune buggy. He might have thrown a pecan at you (that’s pronounced “PEE-can,” not “puh-CAWN,” by the way). He probably gave you a hug at some point–or at least a firm pat on the back or on the top of the head. He touched the lives of thousands of people. He was like Hoosiers and Rudy, Friday Night Lights and Remember the Titans, all rolled into one.

Hearing of his passing has flooded me with memories of growing up. And it’s also flooded me with memories of teaching.

I taught at an incredible school here in Atlanta for 4 years–British Literature to 11th graders, World Literature to seniors, 8th grade English and Composition, and 10th-through-12th grade Creative Writing. I loved my own high school experience and could not wait to do all I could to make my students love theirs just as much. I still keep up with many of my old students, and I keep my fingers crossed that they remember my classes as fondly as I remember teaching them. My classes were about literature, grammar, composition and analysis, but they were also about life itself. (Remember, class:  Polonius speaks the truth, and a ham is the best Halloween costume ever.)

Take, for instance, The Top-Loading VCR, which is the best named publication of creative writing in the history of the world, even if it did contain thinly veiled country-song lyrics and more passive voice that you could shake a stick at. (Poetic license allows me to end that with a preposition; my creative writers mastered this concept and then used it at every. Possible. Chance.) This class was the lone elective I taught, and after a summer in a creative writing seminar at Brown, I could not wait to see them during 2nd period. Just how awesome was this class? They snuck in a cookie cake for my birthday–a cookie cake they had specifically ordered to read, “Happy Berfday, Ms. B.” The cover of The Top-Loading VCR featured a photo of our class jammed behind a threatening sign in the media center which stated “DO NOT STAND BEHIND THIS SIGN.” Rebels, some might say. Poetic license, I say.

My other classes were equally as much fun, to me at least. I’ve already written about taking them outside to watch it snow when we were reading “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” We ate [terrible] homemade baklava while reading The Odyssey. We compared The Muppet Movie to the Restoration, Jodie Foster’s movie Nell to Hamlet‘s Ophelia, T.S. Eliot to absolutely everything. We learned why one should never name a baby Sorrow, and that trench warfare was worse than terrible. Heads don’t go in ovens, and hearts should not be plucked from funeral pyres. Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet proved to my 8th graders that a black and white movie could be good.

Some learned you should never eat a Happy Meal before Track practice, but a stick of butter and a beer before a meet was OK (no, not really…). (And if we’re going down this dark path, I’ll also confess that suggesting your cheerleaders make a run-through sign saying “Lovett can Shove-It” can work miracles for a JV football team’s morale.) My students heard more about my dad and my grandmother–and about Vidalia onions–than they’d ever care to admit. I tried to teach them that everything was a teacher, not just the grown-ups roaming the hallways of their school.

They taught me how to juggle; I taught them that you cannot catch a football while standing on a basketball (go ahead; try it. You will fail.) They taught me about Atlanta; I taught them about growing up below the gnat line. They taught me about faith; I taught them about love (what little I knew about it, that is). They learned that it was OK to be challenged, OK to lose, OK to cry. They can tell you why words like “encyclopaedia” and “orthopaedics” are sometimes spelled that way (darn you, Anglo-Saxons and your ash).

They taught me how to stay young; I tried to show them that you don’t have to grow old. We were a great team.

I still keep up with so many of my students, some of them even daily. It amazes me to see them as doctors and lawyers, mothers and fathers, happy and healthy and productive. They’ve run for office, battled cancer, and fought in wars. At least one is a priest. They are all teachers in their own ways, and they all mean the world to me.

My students are still very much a part of my life, even now, over 15 years after I’ve left my classroom. My own children fall asleep to the sounds of Brahms and Beethoven, performed on the piano by one of my old students, a copy of her cd–part of a successful application to Princeton–having been uploaded to the various devices we have around the house. Decorating my Christmas tree is a walk down memory lane; some of my most cherished ornaments came from teenagers, and I remember exactly who gave me each one–even if some of their mothers didn’t insist that they scribble their names on there with a Sharpie. The mother of 2 of my students is now my middle son’s teacher. In one of the strangest coincidences, one of my old students now lives in the very house where I brought home my babies.

Earlier today, while I was sitting in a carpool line thinking about Coach Cravey and his legendary, marvelous, one-of-a-kind self, I remembered–yet again–what an honor it is to be called a teacher; it is indeed a calling, nothing less. Thank you, Coach Cravey, for following your calling. And thank you, Marist students from 1995 through 1999, for helping me fulfill my own calling. Keep daring to disturb the universe, y’all. I think you’re doing a pretty good job so far.

And indeed there will be time

To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”

Time to turn back and descend the stair,

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair–

[They will say: “How his hair is growing thin!”]

My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,

My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin–

[They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”]

Do I dare

Disturb the universe?

In a minute there is time

For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

–from “The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot

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