I have a folder in my email inbox titled Friends. I also have one for Teaching, with subfolders for different classes. No doubt there’s a better way to organize (Friends from Way Back; Acquaintances I Rarely See; BFF) but I stick with the general. Lately I’ve been consider a new category, somewhere between Teaching and Friends.
I taught Julie a year ago, and when the class was over, we started emailing—not that often, and usually on the topic of writing. But the tone had changed, the balance of power shifted, so I thought of her in a new way. When she asked me to write her a letter of recommendation for grad school, I found my finger hesitating on the touch pad. Where did I file her request? And closing my note in which I said I’d be happy to recommend her, I hesitated at “Best, Lindsey.” It sounded so cold, given her new status in my in-box. And yet “Love” or “XOXO” seemed cloying, inappropriate.
This morning, an email came in from a current student. No quandary there—clearly the Teaching folder would do. Her note was personal and revealing enough, and my reply (I hope) reassuring and supportive enough that “Best,” again, fell short. This one got “Yours, Lindsey” – still professional, but warmer. Even as I clicked Send, I knew that the next time I sent her an assignment or clarified a point of craft, we’d be back to “Best.”
Or would we? Had her revelations opened up new terrain between us, terrain that could not now be disregarded? Teaching writing –especially memoir writing—opens up all kinds of personal vs. professional quandaries, of course. I’m used to them, and used to replying with a professional gloss. Thank you for writing so honestly, or You’ve done a good job showing the narrator’s pain and confusion. But that doesn’t mean I’m always sure I’m handling it well.
When I taught high school, I had a student who handed in a piece about losing his virginity to an older woman, another who quoted Sharon Olds on oral sex, and a third who wrote about feeling suicidal. Topics we may talk about with friends, but these kids were not my friends. I was fond of them—well, not so fond of the Sharon Olds reader—and, in the case of the suicidal girl, obligated by law to report what she’d written. No matter how honest their phrasing and vivid their imagery, Thank you did not seem the right response.
It’s different with adults, of course. Or is it? When does a student become a friend, and when should she?
Later this morning, I’ll get in the car and drive across the Bay Bridge to join three women for lunch. Last time we got together, I was a month away from marriage and Brooke was about to have a baby. Today, we’ll sit in the sun, pass Brooke’s baby back and forth, look at my wedding pictures, and laugh. I first met these women in 2009, in the classroom. They took three classes from me, and then some time passed, and two of them showed up at a talk I gave. “Let’s get together,” Susan suggested, and it seemed like a great idea. It was. They’re former students, yes, but now their emails land solidly in the Friends folder.
A natural evolution. I guess that’s the trick. When I find myself saying, “God, I know just what you mean,” or “Tell me what’s going on with your husband’s job” rather than writing Convincing use of imagery or More detail here? And by the time the wedding pictures come out and I’m Friending them on Facebook, “Teaching” has become merely a way of how we met.