She asked if she could start a fitting room for me. Something about her stilted accent seemed very familiar. I sensed a glimmer of recognition in her eyes as well. I looked at her name tag. “Paolina.” Could it be?
Hesitantly, I asked if she had a son. I mean, it’s kind of a weird question to ask a stranger. She paused, then answered, “Yes.” “Is his name Mike?” I asked. “Yes,” she answered, cautious. “I was his first grade teacher! At Argonne!” I exclaimed excitedly. I could see her recollecting. My hair is much shorter now, hers much longer. I’ve gained a few pounds over the years, as has she.
“Ah! Yes! Yes!”she proclaimed. “Mike, he’s, he’s on the break now.” I wondered what break he could be on. “What do you mean?” I asked. “The spring break.” I pondered, not remembering that San Francisco schools had a spring break. “He’s in college now, in the San Diego. He studies the mechanical engineering.”
It was the first time I’ve ever felt old.
The last time I saw Mike was when he was in second grade. He was big for his age, very tall and solid. He had penetrating dark eyes and translated for his mom, who didn’t speak English very well. He had a large gap between his two over sized front teeth. He loved spending summers in Bulgaria, his home country. That was just, what, a few years ago? I tried to calculate when I taught him, and couldn’t figure out the math. A child I taught, in college now? That can’t be right. Maybe this was all a mistake and this was another woman named Paolina who had a son named Mike and it was just a crazy coincidence.
“So, have you been back to Bulgaria recently?” This would confirm that she wasn’t the Paolina I knew.
“Oh, yes. We go. We go this summer. We love the trip. Mike, he take the summer school classes, so we go for one month, not two.”
It was as though I had been punched in the stomach. I took a deep breath. A child I taught in first grade was now in college. Yes, that was possible. I mean, I had left teaching ten years ago. Wait, thirteen years ago. Oh. And I left teaching the year after teaching Mike. So that meant the children I had taught earlier in my career were out of college. As I thought about it, it made logical sense. And it confounded me.
I remember so well teaching Mike’s class. I remember the children who needed extra attention, those students who just didn’t thrive in a traditional classroom. So we created stations, and games, and alternative schedules, and buddy systems. I remember the field trips we took to the Academy of Sciences (and more than one lost child – panic!). I remember the crafts and projects we made on the different holidays, some successful, others not. The “game” of choosing rubber gloves and seeing who could pick up the most pieces of trash on the playground. I remember thinking, at the time, that I was not old enough to be trusted with the education of such amazing children. It felt like just, well, if not yesterday, then maybe a few days before yesterday.
But it wasn’t. It was three careers, one divorce, one international move, three domestic moves, and countless countries traveled ago. In my mind, though, I still see my 24 kindergarten and first grade students as that – delightful five and six year olds learning to read and write and play and live together.
Paolina had just said something and was waiting for my response. I smiled. “Yes, it’s so nice to see you, too, Paolina. Please tell Mike I said hello and have a wonderful trip to Bulgaria this summer.”