Even though I wouldn’t have told you as much at the time, I wasn’t a very good student in high school.

Don’t misunderstand me – academically, I did fine in high school, although certainly not as well as I certainly could have done. I was the classic case of a student who got bored with school, decided it wasn’t worth expending a whole lot of effort on, and floated through high school on mostly natural abilities. Let’s face it: I wouldn’t want to have taught me.

At the time, though, I thought that teachers would want a student like me: often willing to participate in class, sometimes insightful, rarely distracting and mostly observant, but overall brilliant. (I had somewhat of a high opinion of myself, you might say.) I also have a weird sense of memory: my mind often forgets things that it probably ought to remember* (both long- and short-term) but frequently remembers things that are perhaps better forgotten.

These two attributes of mine conspired to make a very frustrating situation for me several years down the road after high school. You see, I ended up forgetting how much of a jerk I was at times during my high school education.

I don’t believe in karma in the grand sense of a perfectly just universe, but I think there are moments of karma for most people. It’s at least frequent enough that there are a sufficient number of parents who end up with the pleasure of being perfectly smug when they see their “Just wait until you have kids…” remarks come to fruition with their own children. (Hasn’t happened to me yet, knock on wood.)

But I found out about this sort of limited karma when I contacted the principal at my old high school to arrange an internship with the one remaining English teacher I knew (who was now the senior English teacher there). Initially, things were fine: the principal (who had taken the position since I had graduated and who has now left the position) knew my dad from his substitute teaching there, and the English teacher had remembered me as a good student just by reputation (since I had never taken him for any classes).

When it came around to him that I hadn’t been a good student – or even a good person – to one of his former colleagues, he backed out of the internship.

It hurt me deeply, perhaps more deeply than anything that’s happened to me. It made me briefly doubt my decision to become a teacher, made me think that maybe I had some affective flaw that would prevent me from being a good teacher. (In retrospect, the fact that I worried about it at all likely mooted those fears.)

The whole situation ended up working out fine, and I did have my internship experience under the same teacher who had told me flat out that my actions had hurt a friend and colleague. He let his offense slide for the sake of helping me out, and I swallowed my pride and admitted that I hadn’t done the right thing.

This was one of those lessons that I learned by experience: We are all people in progress, but this is especially true of students. I cannot say that I like who I was in high school, conceited, arrogant, haughty, opinionated, brash, tactless…I could go on. Even though I don’t think it’s fair, I think many of my former teachers, even beyond this one particular instance, probably judge me based on who I was back then. But that was me in progress, not me now – I am the product of that person, but I have grown past him.

So I have resolved myself, as a teacher, to always remember this simple fact. My students will test me, will try my patience, will probably say things that offend me (whether they mean to or not), but I will not hold them responsible for these things once they are beyond the walls of my classroom. Each of my students is a person, working their way through life, and I would do well to remember that if I do my job right, then I should not be surprised at seeing my students grow even after they leave my reach but should in fact expect that. How I treat my students should reflect this understanding.

*Like this story – I can’t remember if I’ve told it before. Oh well, it’s useful for my point.