“Are you Mr. Gels?”
It was a Sunday evening, and my wife and I were sitting in a restaurant, enjoying a late dinner. As coincidence would have it, the meal we were eating was paid for with an end-of-the-year student gift card, and I knew immediately the guy standing in front of me was student related as well.
The “Mr. Gels” was sort of a big clue.
“I am, yes,” I said, rising to my feet.
He introduced himself, and I frantically flipped through my mental Rolodex of former students during the second or so before he told me his son’s name. Just as he was telling me, I actually found it, which was sort of amazing since most of the cards in that Rolodex were nearly blank.
I have a confession: I’m terrible at remembering student names. I’m blessed with the ability to retain positive memories, and I remember snippets of conversations and interactions, but it’s rare that I remember a name from more than a year or two ago. And when I come face to face with a former student? Well, it doesn’t help that they don’t look like a third-grader any more!
“Wow, how’s he doing?” I asked, genuinely glad to hear of him.
“He’s doing really well,” he replied. “He’s graduating early and heading off to college in the fall. He’ll be staying with his grandparents while he goes to school.”
“That’s great, I’m really happy to hear that!”
A quick moment of uncomfortable quiet fell between us as he seemed to search for something to say. We both stood there, my wife looking up at us politely. I was about to ask what his son would be studying when dad changed the direction of the conversation.
“You know, your class was really a turning point for him.”
Now it was my turn to seem to search for something to say.
He continued. “Third grade was when he found out he could do school. After that, he started to do a lot better and really turned things around.”
I didn’t know how to reply to that, and I don’t remember what I eventually came up with. He told me that his son is working nearby for the summer, in case I wanted to drop by and see him. I hope to do just that. We talked for just a few more minutes before he walked away and we returned to our meals.
It was quite a while, I have to say, before that smile left my face.
An aside: While I’m still Mr. Gels, I suppose, I’m not “Mr. Gels” in a classroom anymore. I’ve retired and taken a position as the education director for the Land Trust of North Alabama. Change, they say, is inevitable.