You probably don’t remember me. I know you have taught hundreds of students a year for decades. I’m just one of those faces in the sea of past pupils. By now it was years ago that you taught me. Perhaps you’d recognize me if you saw my name and picture in the newspaper. You’d see my face, older but much the same, and it might light up something in the back of your mind. My name underneath would help put the pieces together. With time it might all come back. But I’m sure you wouldn’t know me if I just walked past you in the supermarket. Perhaps you wouldn’t remember me exactly but you would recognize me as a former student, or you would just assume as much after the many years teaching. But I remember you. I will always remember you, because you were the best teacher I ever had.
Movies always paint these romanticized relationships between teachers and their students. Bad teachers are either spitefully strict with sharp memories to scold you for your childish misdeeds years later or lazily incompetent: calling students by the wrong name and stating that a stop sign has six sides. Good teachers are the likes of Stand and Deliver’s Jaime Escalante or the quintessential John Keating of Dead Poets Society. These role model teachers don’t just inspire their students, they connect with them. The connections aren’t just academic; they are personal connections. Movies prime students to believe that the best, life-changing teacher is the one they go to for counsel, who bolsters their confidence outside the classroom. An amazing teacher is a lifelong mentor.
But that is not how the real world works: at least, not all the time for everyone. Sometimes that connection happens. I assume. I honestly don’t know because I never experienced it. Have you? Did you have a student that made a huge impact on your life? That you took under your wing? Teachers, for me, were always teachers, never confidants. That’s why you—the best teacher I ever had—probably don’t remember me. Even if you do remember me, I would be surprised if you knew that I consider you my favorite teacher.
I never gave you reason to pay attention to me. I never thought to connect with you outside of the boundaries of the predetermined script between students and teachers. I never needed advice that I couldn’t get from other, more permanent fixtures in my life. I never struggled with motivation or focus. Academic success never eluded me. Nor was I notably intelligent beyond my age. I was a keep your head down, good-enough grades kind of student. Does that somehow disqualify me from having a special relationship with a teacher? Or was I never the sort to reach out and seek a deeper connection? Did I only need to ask?
It would have been nice to have that deeper connection with you. Of course that would have involved recognizing you as the best teacher I would ever have while I was your student. A part of me knew from day one that you would be my favorite. The other part didn’t come until years later when I had seen my education through. But I don’t regret not having that beyond-the-classroom relationship with you. The cynic in me thinks that it wouldn’t live up to the movie idealizations anyway. I just wish you knew how much of an impact you made on me.
Your impact wasn’t picture-perfect. You didn’t open my eyes to a subject I never knew I was good at or to a career I never thought I could have. You didn’t forever change the trajectory of my life. You taught my least favorite subject, and your class didn’t change my feelings about it. Your impact is removed from academic pretense. You were passionate about teaching, not what you taught. At least, that is how it seemed to me. You were amazing regardless of the subject. You became my gold standard for who a teacher should be, how a teacher should act, and what expectations a teacher should have. Your examinations were thorough but fair. Your intentions were clear. You taught what mattered—what people ought to understand—not what fit within the unique expectations of academia. You controlled the classroom while allowing your students to take ownership of their work and education.
More than anything else, you saw me. It was small stuff. It wasn’t special to me—it was just who you are and how you teach. And because it wasn’t special to me, I loved you all the more for it. At the same time, I doubt you know or understand how much those small gestures meant to me. So I’m writing this letter to say thank you. Thank you for being you. Thank you for being a wonderful, thoughtful, passionate teacher. It may not seem obvious to you, because you aren’t marked by grand gestures or swooning students, but you are appreciated for what you do.
You valued quality over quantity. In the most polite, subtle way you discouraged those who spoke only to hear their own voice. You did not reward the loudest opinion. You encouraged thoughtful questions and synthesis, not regurgitation. You focused on comprehension not rote memorization. You taught concepts not answers.
Those aren’t the sorts of things a person wins awards for. They often go as unnoticed as they go unacknowledged. But I’m writing you to say I acknowledge them. I value the work you do. Don’t ever change. You made me realize how artful and skilled good teaching is. Good teachers aren’t marked by one student or even by one classroom. Good teachers are experts in teaching everyone.
I simply want you to know that I will never forget you. I will never stop appreciating you. Although the exact content of your class has faded from my memory after so many years, you have not. I am writing this small note as positive reinforcement. I am writing to say that I hope you know how uniquely amazing you are. You truly are one in a million.
High School Relationship
I’m not perfect, even though I actively pretend I am. I cannot fairly blame the fact that I was young and dumb, even though those things didn’t help. I did love you, though I haven’t for years. It’s awkward between us. We left things in a mess. Sometimes I still wish you’d call me. You probably deleted my number years ago. It’s not your fault.
When we knew each other, we felt so grown up. We would split bottles of wine that you hid under your bed. We would make reservations for dinner dates. We wrote each other deep, emotional poems as proclamations of love or regret. We would talk about settling down and having ambitious careers. We brandished emotional scars we were too young to have like trophies. We talked about Phillip Glass and David Lynch like they were Beethoven and Hitchcock. We thought we were in a forever kind of love.
Looking back, we seemed so young. At least, I feel like I was. I knew so little because I had experienced so little. I did not have a fully formed understanding of the world, let alone myself. I can’t imagine you were any more mature than I was. We mistook being mature for our age with being mature. I think part of the reason I liked you was because you shared that delusion with me. But we also made so many mistakes because of that delusion. We said things we didn’t understand the meaning of. We clung to deep seeded opinions that were formed out of thin air. Now, after so many years have passed, it all seems so silly. I see it for how childish it was.
I remember how long it took for us to get together. You pined after me for so long, but I was staunchly against high school relationships. I thought they were temporary: the sort of thing that lasted only few weeks, maybe months, and was just for show or sex. I wanted the real thing, though I didn’t know what that actually meant. I liked you, you liked me, but of course it wasn’t that simple. I’m sorry I thought that true love couldn’t be that easy. I swear teenagers make up drama just to feel more alive. Was that just me? I’m sorry I pushed back and said no when I thought yes. I was confused and proud. I mixed up labels not mattering and their meaning not mattering. I convinced myself that words were unimportant while I obsessed over their definitions. I was caught up in trying to guess what everyone else was thinking. I neglected what I was thinking. I missed what you were thinking. I was selfish. I’m sorry. I really mean that. I was the idiot, blinded by a future that would never exist.
Eventually you wore me down, or I wore myself down. Either way, it was like a floodgate. I went from denying my feelings for you to all in. That was the only way I knew how to like you. We were inextricable from each other after that. I would call you late at night when I felt suffocated by life. You would console me or we would just listen to each other breathe across the phone line. We were never interested in PDA. I only remember holding your hand once. Maybe it happened a few times, but it was never memorable. Even without the physical connection, there was magnetism between us when we were together. I remember the looks across the table when we would spend time with friends: coy yet bashful. I could never get enough of you. It felt mutual. It felt like we built our own little bubble of love and safety within the harsh world we found ourselves. I’d like to think that I helped save you as much as you helped save me.
We never talked about it back then, but I noticed your burns and the scabs you’d never let close. I remember the sleepless nights you’d mention casually before quickly changing the subject. They were subtle. They were chalked up to bad habits and clumsiness and bad luck. I chose to not push or question. It was infrequent enough that I had that luxury. But it was too frequent to be a coincidence. They stopped when we finally got together. Slowly the scabs healed. The dark circles under your eyes lightened. The burns were less common. And I think the fact that they stopped scared me more than the fact that they were there in the first place. I didn’t want to feel responsible, but I couldn’t shake that feeling. I didn’t want to think about the possibility that the only reason you stopped was that we were together. I didn’t want that kind of pressure on our relationship. I didn’t want the responsibility of being the only thing keeping you together. But it was worse to consider the alternative. I wouldn’t allow myself to entertain the idea that it wasn’t me that stopped it: it was me that caused it. I took advantage of you back then. I leaned on you and let you in when it suited me. As soon as things felt too real or were too inconvenient I backed away. I didn’t think about how much I teased you and led you on. I knew you liked me, and I manipulated that. It was a lot to handle. I was a lot to handle. Now that I have distance, I can view my selfishness for what it was and not hide it under the guise of independence. But with hindsight, I can’t also help but wonder if in my selfishness I wasn’t just neglectful of your emotional state, but I was actively harming it. If that was what was happening, I am sorry. I apologize, even though I don’t think I will ever find the words to sufficiently express my regret and my remorse.
At the time our relationship seemed to last a lifetime. The forever we promised we’d love each other for seemed as near as it seemed infinite. But looking back now, the whole thing was a blip. For all the times we spoke on the phone at the dead of night whispering I love you, we spent another night screaming at each other. For every secret we confided in one another, we shot one back as ammunition in a fight. Our intimacy became our weapons. We would break up for a while, which would feel like eternity—it was only ever a matter of days or, at best, weeks—but inevitably we would see each other again. It was unavoidable. And the “I still love you”s and the “this is a bad idea”s and the “I’ve missed you so much”s were just as unavoidable. Somehow we quickly became the messy idea of love that I thought I wanted so badly and that I thought we would never be.
I think I loved the idea of you more than I actually loved you. You can’t blame me though, because you did too. You were so intent on sculpting yourself into the person you decided to be. It was a romantic idea, but you ended up just being a caricature of yourself. You didn’t leave space for the person you actually were.
I hated how you never took school seriously. You were so bent on pitting intelligence against academia. You spent so many hours teaching yourself ancient Greek that you failed your Spanish class. And then you wore that failure as a badge of honor. You tried to take an art class but scoffed at its traditionalist methodology. You saw avant-garde as better, not different. You embodied Max Fischer under the presumption you were Albert Einstein or Bill Gates. Your academic failure frustrated me. Not because you weren’t smart, but because you were too smart for your own good.
You were unconventionally romantic in the most cliché ways. You abhorred Valentines Day, but loved surprising me with chocolate. We broke into cemeteries to have romantic picnics. You brought me to a Tristan Perich concert and a midnight screening of Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was easy to get wrapped up in it all. You made me feel special to you, and you made us feel special to the world. But it was always actually about you. You were chasing the ideal you thought your life should be. I got roped into your fantasy. I’m not sure if you were trying to impress me or make me more like you, but it worked. For a time.
You were so glamorous. Loving you was so glamorous. But it was always on your terms. You knew my favorite font, but not my favorite color. You knew about the English teahouse that I loved because my grandmother used to take me there. You’d surprise me with their little scones and clotted cream. I felt so special. But you never remembered my birthday. You’d gift me books you love, but they were books I had recommended to you. I loved everything you did, but I couldn’t get past all the things you didn’t do.
I wanted you to be honest and vulnerable with me. Perhaps that wasn’t a fair expectation when you weren’t even being honest with yourself. I thought screaming at you would be a wake up call. Of course it didn’t work. You thought loving Robin would be better. Of course that didn’t work either.
I remember that night a few weeks before graduation, when we bumped into each other at that party. I was tipsy. You were a little high. We were both too giggly for a real reconciliation, but the inebriated titters put us at ease. You told me you were in love with Robin. I was shattered, but didn’t show it. At least it felt final. You had gotten together with Robin while we were on break. I shouldn’t have assumed our fight would blow over and we’d get back together like always. I had.
The only comfort in your proclamation was that I thought it was safe to act like friends. I wanted as much as I could get, and I didn’t feel like I had to impress you anymore. We started talking about Heathers, for whatever reason, and wandered away from the roar of the party. We didn’t touch, but walking side-by-side we were perilously close. It felt romantic, but my foggy brain kept me in check. We talked about college and family and anything that wasn’t our past.
Eventually you told me you still had feelings for me. I didn’t know what to make of that. Part of me wanted you to kiss me there and then. Part of me wanted to walk away without a word. Instead, I reminded you that you were with Robin. It was an insensitive response, but you were the one who told me you loved Robin just minutes before. You asked me if I wanted to get back together with you. I asked if you were really in love with Robin. You took that as a no. I meant it as a yes.
I didn’t want to be a trade up. I wanted you to take a risk in choosing me. I didn’t want to be with someone who stays with a person they don’t love—who lies about it. We fought a lot those last few weeks. We were both angry for stupid reasons. Or maybe no real reason at all other than our own pride. Or more generously, our own confusion. We could have steered clear of each other, but we didn’t. We relished in the anger. It was the closest thing we could get to love.
I wondered for years what would’ve happened if I had just said yes to you that night. I used to blame myself for the missed opportunity. I used to imagine a happily ever after. I pictured that moment a thousand times, and each one became more of a fantasy. I wrote out our lives like a movie script. I say I still love you. We kiss, and you break up with Robin. Flash forward to our summer home in the Berkshires where we are smiling and saying “I love you” over breakfast, wedding bands on our fingers. But honestly, it was never going to end like that. It was so close to graduation. Maybe we would’ve been together for the summer, but I’m sure a long distance relationship would not have worked out. Maybe it would have been a less painful ending where we grow apart and just leave each other behind as we slip into our new lives. Maybe it would have been more painful, and we’d be screaming at each other on the phone at 2am rehashing old fights and lying about staying faithful. But it’s all just maybes. What happened was that we couldn’t let go until we couldn’t hold on any longer.
I have no regrets, not really. Loving you was what I needed then. It was all, if not more than, I could handle at that point in my life. Thinking back to the fights and the grudges that we had, I realize none of it matters. Not just because time heals old wounds—though it does help a lot—but also because what was so important back then is just forgotten pettiness now. I wish I could see you one last time. I don’t want to get coffee or catch up. I don’t really want to taint how I remember you with a glimpse of who you’ve become. But it would be nice to bump into you on the sidewalk or with a group of friends at a reunion. We would notice how indifferent we felt. We could have a moment and laugh off how silly we were as children. We could console ourselves that we’ve actually matured since then. We could agree that our relationship is important now because it was important then. At the same time we could agree that it doesn’t really matter anymore, and we would not make false promises to stay in touch. We are too far past pleasantries to lie to each other like that. I’ve done all that processing on my own, but it would be nice to do it with you.
Likelihood of this conversation sparking a connection: 1%