Saturday, February 19, 2011

Anonymous

This is a town full of those who wish to lose their anonymity. So when I say that being anonymous alternately pisses me off, frustrates me or even hurts, I’m not likely to get a lot of argument. Or notice for that matter. I wish this whole town knew me as a writer and celebrated me, of course, but that’s not even the kind of loss of anonymity I’m talking about.

At six feet tall, and a rather leonine personality, I’ve always thought of myself as someone who stands out in a crowd – someone you’re going to remember. Not necessarily just if we’ve been in the same room although my ego would like to assume even then, but if we’ve meet, talked, clicked over something or other I find it rather improbable that I’d be forgotten. Sure we’re not going to be remembered by every soul we meet just as we won’t remember every hand we shake. But being forgotten by those with whom you feel connected hurts.

I was at a meeting today and a woman I’ve meet several times, a woman I’ve complimented on her way with words and even been advised by, came up to where I was talking with a friend. The friend squealed a hello to her and turned to me “This is Heidi, do you guys know each other?” I smiled as the woman looked me over, her face blank. “No,” she stated, “nice to meet you.”

My ‘yes’ died in my throat. I shook her hand, wondering if I should correct her, remind her, and finally settled on a minorly defiant “nice to see you again.” I excused myself and walked away. Had my previous heartfelt compliments meant so little to her? Did she not see me as part of the community with which she met every week? Worst of all, was I really that forgettable?

In an instant I was back in high school. Or more accurately, a year after high school. I was home for my first college spring break. I made the usual pilgrimage back to my high school to visit my friends still there. I’d always seen past graduates return for triumphant visits, marveled at how mature and worldly they seemed, and been envious of the grand welcomes the teachers gave them, eager to hear what they were making of themselves out in the big world. I returned smiling and ready to be so lauded.

I walked onto campus, struck by how distant this world seemed from me now. How innocent and simple. Oh how grand I fancied myself after one year in another town. I went straight for the classroom of my favorite teacher. For four years she’d been a mentor and mother figure to me. She’d inspired me and helped set me on my university path. I couldn’t wait to see her light up, get a welcoming hug and regale her with tales of my freshman year.

“Michelle!” I called, striding into the room ready with any number of inside jokes.

She turned to me, a blank look on her face. Certainly nothing I would describe as lit up. “Hi?” she waited.

“It’s me! I’m. Visiting.” I faltered. This was not going according to celebratory plan.

“I’m sorry, what’s your name?”

I stood there for what seemed like an eternity. Her phone rang. “It’s Heidi,” I murmured as she turned to answer it. I wandered out of the room. Had I made so little of an impression in four years? Did she really not care about me? Was I so forgettable?

In college, I’d bonded with my Italian teacher. Having traveled all over Europe, I had chosen my true love and it was Italy. I came into her class ready to learn. I picked up her accent, mannerisms and regional curse words. She became part of my Italian personality. Later, when I returned from my Junior Year Abroad in Italy, I couldn’t wait to visit her, share stories of my year, compare with her stories of growing up there. I marched into her classroom with an ebullient “Ciao, Bella!”

She swiveled to study me. “Do I know you?”

The air went out of me. Even as I haltingly explained that I’d been her student and I’d just returned from her homeland, she stared at me with a bland ‘if you say so’ look.

“The teacher always means more to the students than the students mean to the teacher,” my husband, a former Italian teacher, comforts me as I recall that disappointment.

Now as a teacher myself, I understand how hard it is to remember names. With each class, I must work to recall a slew of new names and faces. I usually retain the names for a little while after the class – several years for the students who stand out. I always retain the faces though. I know who I’ve taught. And I know the students I feel a stronger connection with. Sometimes they are the ones who reach out to me during class. Sometimes they are the ones in whom I see a reflection of my young self. I’m sad when they go on about their lives and for them I’m just another teacher they don’t have any longer. So I would argue that in some cases the students mean just as much to the teacher. I was sure I’d been just such a student.

As the woman from this morning’s meeting brought me back to those other disappointing moments of presumed connection it hit me just how much a sense of being known by one’s smaller community counts for more than the larger anonymity of show biz. A bit of a ‘duh’ moment, I’ll grant you. But it underscored for me that the woman’s feeling of connection or lack thereof was a key component to my own. How often had I gone out of my way to be there for Michelle in high school or chat with my Italian teacher in college? Aside from just taking in their lessons, how much had I acknowledged them for the contributions they were making to my life in the moment? Mattering to someone is what we all crave; being valued by those whom we value. Next week I’ll make a point of greeting that same woman so that she knows someone, no matter how inconsequential to her larger world, someone remembers her. For whatever it’s worth, she’s not anonymous.

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