The first thing I read this morning was an obituary for a student I last saw two weeks ago, at our final exam. He'd been in both my classes, and he was terrific: smart, lively, generous. I can't claim to have known him outside of class. But it turns out that's a pretty intimate way of knowing someone.
I know lots of things about my students' lives, though it's a collection of details rather than individual portraits. I know this one has a boyfriend deployed overseas, that one works nights at the casino, another has a sick parent. Even when I learn quite terrible things--a best friend's suicide, a sibling killed in a domestic violence dispute--they tend to come in isolation. I learn what I do because the student is both in crisis and trying to keep it together. So we work out how I can help on the scholastic end, but after ensuring that she has appropriate support, I don't get or ask for more details.
But you can know someone without knowing what we normally think of as "personal" information. When it comes to factual data, this is close to the sum of what I knew about my student: where he worked, where he started college, and the kinds of books he read in his spare time. I knew that he'd just gotten married and that he was in a band. Our one-on-one contact might have added up to sixty minutes. That's more personal contact than I have with some students, but it doesn't amount to intimacy.
On the other hand, over the course of three and half months I read more than 30 pages of his prose. We spent upwards of 80 classroom hours together--nevermind the hours I spent reading and thinking about his work outside of the classroom. In a limited but very real way, I know his mind, personality, and habits of thought. I could tell you about his intellectual obsessions and his writerly quirks. I've thought about his classroom presence: how he takes up space both physically and verbally. I know his laugh and I could recognize him by his gait when he was still far down the hall.
In this he isn't so exceptional. Not all students take up this much psychic real estate, but a surprising number do. Running through my mental attendance list, I can conjure up similar feelings of attachment and investment for at least half my students, maybe more.
We talk about how large teachers loom for students, the ways they imprint upon us and absorb our quirks, habits, and obsessions. But the arrow doesn't just go one way.
Rest in peace.