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It must have been 1991 when I spotted Mrs Evans in Belfast Airport.
I’d have been eight, and heading off for a week in Majorca with my family. Truth be told, 30 years later I couldn’t tell you anything about the food, the beaches or where we stayed – but I remember well the thrill of realising my Y4 teacher was queuing up for the same flight as us.
It was unmistakably her, but she didn’t look the same. In place of her usual flowing dresses were shorts and a t-shirt. She was clutching the hand of a man I’d never seen before.
Her posture, the way she was talking – everything was familiar, and yet different. Who knew she existed outside the school premises? I felt like I’d peeked behind the curtain…
Having now spent many years as a teacher myself, I can speculate as to how Mrs Evans might have felt that day. Did her heart sink as she laid eyes on me at the start of a much-needed holiday, the sole purpose of which was to expunge all thoughts of me and my classmates? Was she silently willing the universe to ensure we weren’t staying at the same hotel? If so, I wouldn’t blame her.
Having said that, bumping into pupils – and former pupils – out of school is simply part and parcel of being a teacher. I’ve never experienced any particularly negative interactions from it myself. Yes, I’ve sometimes had ‘SIRRRR!!!!!’ roared at me at an ungodly volume from the other side of a road when out with friends, much to their amusement. Yes, I’ve received a bit of giggling and pointing when travelling on trains, but I’ve overwhelmingly found that any chats have been cordial.
When meeting former pupils, it’s been a joy to hear what they’ve been up to. I’m often left shaking my head at how the passage of time and the shedding of puberty-induced hormones can mellow and mature even the most wayward of students.
That doesn’t mean such meetings always happen under ideal circumstances, of course. I’ve definitely become self-conscious of what’s in my trolley at supermarkets, and guiltily scrambled to cover potentially embarrassing items with bags of salad on occasion.
Pub trips have come to premature conclusions when groups of sixth formers have appeared. A former colleague used to recall the time she was accosted by a pupil and their mother in a cinema foyer and interrogated about a forthcoming piece of coursework. Another still cringes as she remembers the unfortunate occasion when a pupil who had recently finished school was assisting with her smear test.
You never know when a train conductor, flight attendant or police officer will break into a smile and ask ‘Do you remember me?’ Assuming you’ve bought a train ticket, aren’t being rowdy on a flight and aren’t about to be arrested, it’s almost always good to see them.
If you’re lucky, and have a better memory than me, then a distinct mannerism, facial feature or tone of voice may well trigger something deep in your brain that allows the man or woman in front of you to regress to a child in your mind’s eye, after which you’ll be able to address them by name.
As someone who occasionally struggles to recognise even people I know relatively well, I must confess that I’ve often floundered, stuttered and searched pleadingly for something to help me place them before asking, as vaguely as possible, “How’s everything going?”
Yet there’s an undeniable pleasure in seeing how the young people you invested so much in have turned out; how they’ve gone from being class clown to a productive member of society, how they’ve fulfilled their potential and achieved their ambitions – or at the very least, moved on from eating pencil shavings. It’s one of those things that really makes the job worthwhile.
Ryan Wilson is an English teacher and writer, and his teaching memoir, Let That Be a Lesson: A Teacher’s Life in the Classroom, is available now (£14.99, Chatto & Windus); follow him at @rhwilson83
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