When the Student Becomes the Teacher

It is expected that in the course of a decades-long career in teaching, you will be the mentor, the counsellor.

But the memories of a student shaping and changing a teacher are even more precious and sometimes entirely unexpected.

Near the end of my career, I taught Grade 2. It was there that I met a charming little girl who helped me heal from an old wound.

Years before, as a student in Grade 4 in Toronto, I had been taught important events occuring in Europe. I listened to a favourite teacher, Mr. Aaron, describing the tragedies and despair of the two World Wars. To my young ears, it seemed that Germany had been the cause of much misery. In that wooden desk, as Mr. Aaron pulled down the multicoloured map of Europe, I decided never to admit to anyone that I had been born in that country. That year, I became a Canadian. Period. English only.

Decades down the road, I was again sitting in a classroom. Mine. A little girl was patiently waiting while I got all my papers ready for my next lesson. She was blithely rattling on about the coming weekend.

“She’s coming on Saturday!”

“Who is?” I was distracted by sheets of jumbled paper.

“My Oma from Germany! Do you have an Oma, Miss St. Clair?”

I froze. All the old ghosts swooshed in, blinking and gathering together. Fortunately, she was bubbly and chatty and intent on practising her counting skills in German. She counted with great concentration and pride. At “eight,” she stumbled.

“Acht.” My eyes widened. Where had that come from?

“Danke.” She smiled. A small group formed.

“Miss St. Clair is helping me practice German. My Oma is coming to visit!” Such animation. Such untroubled delight. Oma couldn’t arrive fast enough!

“Can we learn, too?”

“Okay! It’ll be fun! Let’s count together. Ready, Miss St. Clair?” The student had become the teacher. I was enchanted as the next twenty minutes were filled with words and phrases, spoken with love and excitement in preparation for a much-anticipated visit from a beloved Oma.

When the bell rang, we lined up for gym. I could feel the dark ghosts shuffling.

“Can we say Guten Morgen tomorrow, Miss St. Clair?”

I smiled, “Ja!”

And the ghosts shut the door on their way to obscurity.

Danke, indeed.

Violet St. Clair

Violet St. Clair, of Edmonton, continues to take great pleasure in meeting former students and chatting about where life has taken them. She has met them in restaurants, in parks, on the stage, on planes, and on the streets of Vancouver. They are everywhere!