“Do you remember what I said I was going to do?” he asks me excitedly.
“Of course,” I nod as if the answer is obvious. “You’re going to open up a boxing gym once you finish college.”
“Two more years,” he tells me, holding up a peace sign. He’s smiling because he knows our well-worn conversation is not finished.
“And, do you remember what I said I was going to do?” He immediately starts grinning. It’s as if my response may be why he even asked in the first place.
“You said you would be the first person to join and then be the first person to kick my butt in front of all my new customers.” He laughs.
“And I have a secret weapon you don’t even know about. It’s new.”
“What is it?”
“Old man rage.” He is thoroughly enjoying this. “Old man rage is greater than skill and more powerful than the eye of the tiger.”
“Alright,” he finally nods.
Here’s the thing. I was his seventh-grade English teacher. He told me all about his boxing gym dream years ago. And this isn’t some chance meeting at a restaurant. It’s our Back to School Night. He’s not here with a younger sibling or cousin. He’s here to visit staff. We hug it out and he heads across the hall and when he walks in I hear the teacher ask him about his boxing gym.
A guy in his twenties making time to come to a middle school Back to School night that seemingly holds nothing for him? A little odd, right? But he’s not the only one. There are many former students, some adults now, that have come tonight. They’re all over campus. It’s really as if there are two separate events taking place, and it feels like a Hemingway short story. On the surface, it doesn’t seem like much. Rules and expectations get explained to new parents. But just below the surface, the faithful have returned to touch base with the first guardians of their dreams.
We are not just their former teachers. Maybe just as important as the language and math skills we gave them, is the fact that we are the keepers of their dreams. As frail new people scanning the landscape in hopes of finding their way in this world, we were the first people they confided in with their new awkward dreams; their new awkward first steps as themselves.
Everyone cowers at the very sight of their middle school photos. It’s a three-year tour of duty that many would just as soon forget. That’s a shame. Many of us have left a thing or two back there. First loves. First broken hearts. First fights. And first forays into dreams. And our kids come back to check on them.
“Mr. Bowen, do you still keep a guitar in that closet?” I nod and she practically skips across the room to get it. “You told me that since I was a good writer and a good singer, I should write my own songs.” She pulls it out and immediately starts to tune it up. “Three chords and the truth. That’s what you said.” Words I stole, but I don’t bother correcting her. She’s rolling. The song is beautiful and that dream lives to see another day.
“Do you remember my name?” He asks with a lilt of hope in his voice. I don’t. But as I look closely and squint my eyes I can still see traces of his little boy face behind his new stubble and jaw line.
“No, I don’t. But I do remember that you wanted to study engineering. Did you do it?” He breaks into a huge grin because he was really asking if I was still keeping watch over his dream.
“How do you remember that?”
“Part of my job,” I say.
Names? Every year I dump dozens of names to make room for new ones. The file on that can only hold so much. And faces? They change and shift over time. Their adult faces almost serve as disguises. But a dream? I never forget a dream.
For more inspiring classroom stories, please check out Mr. Bowen’s recent best seller, Our Kids: Building Relationships in the Classroom.