I seems as if I’ve been writing “You are loved” a lot lately and you’ll forgive me if there’s a bit too much ‘love’ here, there, and everywhere. I’ve been writing “you are loved” on the blog and faceplace pages of former students, two in particular, who have been having a rough time of it. One with stage four cancer, the other with pregnancy complications. I feel as if I’m sharing private information here, violating a trust, sharing t.m.i. with a nameless, faceless internet. I’m not sure that I care. As I see it, spreading the word that these two are loved is all the better, because not enough people can know how special they are.
It feels a bit odd to be confessing my love for two former students. Surely that’s a violation of some teacher-student code written somewhere in pedagogical ideology. Should I emphasize that these are former students? Does that free up some emotional space, some emotional appropriateness? I admit that I’m always one to carefully look twice before I cross the road from teacher-student relationship into teacher-student friendship. In this age of 24/7 access, I used to have a very strict policy against social media connections amongst current students and very few students were ever given my cell phone number. I have colleagues that give their cell phone numbers out to students all the time and have scores of current students follow them on twitter, facebook, and allow students to call them by their first name. Is this student-teacher bff-dom a sign of the times and I’m horribly outdated? I have no earthly idea.
Social media has certainly allowed a new era of student-teacher relationships to emerge, that is for certain. Now, students can ‘find’ you years, months, or days after graduation and reconnect. I must say that each time it happens, I am so flattered– flattered at the prospect that a former student thinks enough of me that they want to stay connected rather than cutting the bookbag strings and staying as far away as possible. These two students, that have been on my mind, fall into that ‘flattery’ category.
I’m always struck by that moment when former students move from the Miss, Professor, or Doctor Darnell relationship into an Amy Darnell relationship. Sometimes when they call me by my first name it’s awkward for both of us. For me, it’s as if I expect Mr. Hankins, Dean Van Tassel, or Dr. Brouder, or some other administrator to be nearby and I can’t stand the thought of disappointing. (I have a bit of a Catholic guilt problem and I’m not Catholic.) Other times I tell them that plenty of time has passed and I think it’s good if they no longer call me “Professor.”
Interestingly I don’t think either of these students hesitated a second calling me by my first name. I can’t say that it was a surprise. Hearing one of them call me “Honey,” well, that one took me by surprise and I attributed it to some really good medicine.
As a communication teacher and practitioner I can’t help but think about the linguistic relativity of it all. Surely, the name we put on things, on people determines the ways in which we think about that thing, that person. I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten away from this concept my entire life. My family always referred to my brothers by their formal first names, but all of their friends called them by their shortened nicknames. To this day, I’m not sure I really know who Mike and Phill are. I have students that offer up really casual nicknames to me on the first day of class and as I told one young woman, “That’s a bit too intimate for me. I’ll stick with your first name.” So, am I letting my profession down when I move from Miss Darnell to Amy or “Honey”? Am I letting down my one-time student if I take a breath of air when she moves beyond Professor to call me Amy? I can only remember a handful of former students referring to my parents by their first names. Is it merely a different time? Is it the difference between high school and college? Is it really about that frou-frou topic of love? That once we start to care for students and students begin to care about their teachers, that we change the names with which we refer to people? Titles don’t necessarily breed the deepest concern and care.
I’m not sure I have an answer. All I know is that to J.S. and H.B., I wish you only best. The best is simply karmic reciprocity. Be well.