Sources of Joy: On Mentors and Hearing from Former Students, Part III

Everyone remembers were they were when they learned about the September 11 terrorist attacks.

For me, it was teaching an A.P. U.S. History class at Longmeadow High School.

I don’t remember the exact words I said after hearing about the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon that sunny Tuesday morning, but the essence was this: “This is history happening right now.  Pay attention to what happens in the next days, months, weeks and years, because this will be the basis for future historians to analyze.”

Megan Hennessy was among the students in that class.

That day was among the most powerful experiences the class and I shared that year, which was among my favorite in my 15 years of teaching.

I had five different sections and three different levels of United States History, and somehow grooved in different ways with all of them.

I piled a lot of work onto the shoulder of Megan’s group to prepare them for the Advanced Placement exam.  They responded by throwing themselves into it with energy and without complaint.

Unfailingly cheerful, Megan was a student who was stretching herself to be in the class.

Her hard work was rewarded by one of the higher scores on the A.P. exam.

I always appreciated her enthusiasm and admired her tenacity and work ethic.

To my great surprise and pleasure, about a month ago I heard from her for the first time in nearly a decade.

She wrote,

Mr. KLO!

How are you? I can hardly believe that it was 10 years ago we gathered in the open space at Longmeadow High School for AP US history. Hopefully you recognize me as one of your former students from your LHS teaching days. 

I responded that of course I did remember, and we caught up with each other.

She’s been doing beautifully, attending Holy Cross, during which time she spent her junior year in Leon, Spain.

Megan wrote:  My first job out of college I worked for a rather large educational travel company called EF tours (in Boston). It required me to recruit high school teachers to take their students on international trips. Discussing travel everyday finally drove me to a point where I decided to trade in my Boston gig for a backpack, and so I bought a one-way ticket to South America. I lived the life of a vagabond through Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, and Peru–an experience I am so thankful to have had. I returned to the States, and decided to move out to Colorado, while exploring graduate school options. I spent one year out there living in Vail, CO working odd jobs (mostly waitressing) to sustain my lifestyle as a ski bum. Eventually I returned east to follow my career path in social work, and I have been studying at Boston College since the fall of 2010. I will graduate this May, and hope to work with adolescents (in some capacity).  I am excited to have discovered a meaningful career path, and so fortunate to have a loving supportive family throughout everything.”

Hearing from former students and learning that they remember you is a major source of joy.

Learning that they have developed into contributory adults who have started to chart their path in the world, blending fearless adventure, service to community and connection to family and friends makes that joy even deeper.

Letting Paul Tamburello, my former fourth grade teacher, mentor and friend know about this indirect impact he had added yet another layer of meaning.

Here’s part of what I wrote to Megan:

Thanks again for your kind words and memories about the class and my role in it.  They mean a lot to me because I think highly of you and because they represent a deep affirmation of the kind of impact we as teachers, and, on some level, all of us as people seek to have.  I don’t know if you remember, and I learned to teach by spending two years as an apprentice in my former fourth grade teacher’s classroom.  We’re still in touch-he actually just landed in Chile, as luck would have it-and I shared the substance of your Facebook note with him.  He was moved for me as well as for the manifestation of the difference he had made in my life.  I write this to say that you have given both of us a tremendous gift by reaching out to me, and I am very grateful to you for it. 

Megan Hennessy and Manqoba Ngubo, who I wrote about recently, differ on nearly every type of demographic variable imaginable-gender, country of origin and class background are just three of the more obvious.

Yet both are former students with whom I recently reconnected.

And each has, through their memories of our shared experiences, put me in touch anew with life’s beauty and joy.


4 responses to “Sources of Joy: On Mentors and Hearing from Former Students, Part III

  1. Jeff, I’m convinced that for every former student you or I hear from, there are countless others on whom we had a positive, meaningful impact and when the subject of education comes up, you and I will be in a narrative that describes it. If we were teaching to any test, it was the test of Life that lay ahead of them, that effort, attitude, and a sense of community counted. We gave them a model that encouraged, fostered, and expected individual aspiration, and showed how it worked in a group setting in which one student’s gain was a gain for the whole group. It was simply the way our classes operated and over time, kids got it. and Thanks for passing this on.

    • jeffkellylowenstein3

      Thanks, PT.

      You know how critical you’ve been through my development of the ability to understand and foster community.

      Hope Mardi Gras is as enjoyable as you hope (I’m not worried about this!).


  2. Jeff – When you get feedback, especially years later about the effect you had on a student, it gives meaning to your work and life. All of us affect everyone else in our lives. Mostly, we do not tell anyone anything about the power of their lives. Some lives teach us how not to behave. Some lives inspire us. All of us, whether we are teachers, or caregivers, or just friend, need feedback. If every patient who felt any kind of a helper did not pay attention to him or her gave feedback, the helpers would learn more about themselves. In the end, the purpose of life is to learn more about ourselves, and to learn more about the effect of our choices. If all of us were focused on not harming, if all of us received accurate, sacred (truthful) feedback, we could know both who we harmed and how we harmed.

    Every choice we make either harms or helps. When our lives inspire over many years, many others are affected positively by our lives. When our lives harm, when our lives teach others not to hope, not to value themselves, not to think for themselves, not to dream, and not to learn how to create their dreams, the world is harmed.

    Children give all of us opportunities to inspire or harm them. Just as you inspired Megan, all of us who are in any child’s family can help give sacred feedback. Because we have a closer relationship to the child, there is the possibility of our choices having a greater impact.

    We create our lives from all the tiny choices we make every moment of every day. Our lives speak.

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