FOR CHARLES AND ALL THE OTHER BOOKS
I had lunch this week with a former student. He’s in his sixties now, so we go back a long way. I met him when I was twenty-eight and he was a callow youth of sixteen, sprawling his legs under a desk in my English class. I liked his wry humor and was glad to see him two years later, sprawled out again, in my advance placement class for seniors. We exchanged letters after he left. I followed him through his naval career, through business and law schools, and I also had the privilege of hiring him as staff when I was in public life. I watched him marry, raise a family and struggle with the prospect of seeing his eldest daughter leave for college. That’s a lot of water under the bridge.
What a privilege it’s been to turn the pages of his life with him, as if we were reading a favorite novel together. A teacher seldom gets that opportunity. I must have taught a thousand students and given an ear to their problems and their successes. I rejoiced to see them graduate and wrapped them in congratulatory hugs, knowing I was saying goodbye. That was the hard part, closing a chapter on an unfinished book. I hoped their stories would be happy ones but sometimes, through an article in the newspaper or information from a friend, I learned what I feared most: that a student had died in a war or was taken by a premature illness, had committed suicide or been sent to prison. These are the books I wish I’d never had to open again.
Still, no matter what twists and turns their lives have taken, I’ve been enriched by them. Perhaps that’s why I write. I am the keeper of their memories. The roguish imp in one of my novels, or the shy girl, or the lonely boy is not from imagination only but is also a treasured remembrance. I have been touched by each of them and in exchange, I’ve given them a kind of immortality as characters on a page. It’s my way of saying thank you.
(Previously published on July 2, 2010)