Earlier this summer I went out for drinks with a former student. She took three classes with me in as many semesters, right after I started teaching at RU, but it's been a few years since she graduated. We'd gone out for lunch or dinner a few times before, and we're Facebook friends, but this was the first occasion where I felt our relationship shifting into something new and leaving behind the last vestiges of the professor/student or mentor/mentee dynamic.
What this new relationship is, though, I don't quite know.
She's not looking for explicit advice or guidance anymore, but it's not yet and perhaps never will be a relationship of equals. There's the age difference, of course, but I have friends scarcely older than she is (she's 27). It's more that we're at different life stages and it's hard for me to see those stages converging.
I function for her, I think, as a cool young aunt might: she talks about the books she's been reading (she's working her way through Nabokov) and the movies she's seen (she just saw Apocalypse Now, after having seen On the Waterfront, and didn't get quite the Brando she was expecting). She talks about her job and her partner's job, and their dog. She tells the occasional humorous story about getting drunk with her girlfriends. But although she asks about RU and what I'm teaching, she doesn't ask much about my life, and when I volunteer small details she doesn't follow up.
But who knows how this friendship might grow and change, and it still offers me a lot. It reminds me that there are a lot of smart young people out there, and that they're not always the ones who were at the head of the class (she was among my better students at RU, academically, but not among my very best). It reminds me what rich lives people can lead, whatever they wind up doing. And it reminds me, too, of the impact one or two people can have on an entire peer group.
My former student has two close friends from RU (both of them also my former students). One went on to get an M.A. in English from a nearby institution, and then last year moved across the country to start a Ph.D. program--in a city, state, and region she'd never been to before. One of their mutual friends visited, loved the area, and decided to move there himself; my former student and her partner are now seriously considering the region as well. As for my student's other close friend, she pulled up stakes to go to Southeast Asia for a year, working for an aid organization and teaching English. Some of their mutual friends, including one who had never been on a plane before, scraped together the cash to go visit and are now dreaming up future travel plans, to increasingly exotic locations.
Among my own college friends, it wasn't unusual to move across the country (lots of us had moved across the country to start college). And although I didn't know as many people who moved abroad, it felt possible. For most of my students, though--a lot of whom come from small towns and have never traveled outside the region or sometimes the state--I don't think it seems as possible. It helps to have a friend do it first. And even for those who choose to remain close to home, certain kinds of careers and certain kinds of lives just aren't visible unless you already know they exist.
Maybe my former student enjoys hanging out with me, in part, because I provide her with a window onto a certain kind of life or a certain set of possibilities. But she definitely does that for me.