When Your Past and Present Collide in the Classroom


katBy Kat Kiefer-Newman

For some reason, a lot of my high school graduating class has moved from my city into the rolling farmlands right next door. This rural town is home to one of the colleges I teach at. Because of this exodus, nearly every semester I meet the son or daughter of someone who knew me when I wore enormous shoulder pads, bras on the outside of my cut-up t-shirts, and had bangs so high that my daughter once asked me if I had a Mohawk. Who among us doesn’t have proof of their bad hair and fashion decisions made at 15, 16, and 17? However, it’s tough to overcome said choices when people from the past keep popping up to tell on me.  Just when I think I’ve lived down my Cindy Lauper fixation, an entire new crop of students pops up who’ve been regaled by their parents with stories about, yes, me.

This semester, the requisite daughter took my college-level writing class.

While she is physically the spitting image of her Associated Student Body Officer mother, this younger version (we’ll call her “Carrie”) is soft-spoken and dislikes being the center of attention; the opposite of how her mother was in high school. In class, I try not to call on her too often, because I know she dreads it. She has shared in her writings that she often feels awkward and out of place in social situations, and my heart aches for her because of her incredible shyness.

Imagine my surprise when I came to class one morning and there she was, surrounded by nearly every member of the class. Her head was thrown back , her eyes were shining, and she was obviously loving the rapt attention of so many people. They, in turn, were absolutely captivated with whatever it was she had in her hands, and whatever it was she was saying. The minute they saw me, it all stopped.

I was thrilled that Carrie had finally found her courage and had sought out attention.

My happy smile disppeared when I saw it. My brain slowly registered the disaster I had unawares and innocently stumbled upon: Carrie had brought my senior high school yearbook. Carrie was frozen with a Jack-O-Lantern grin on her face, unsure what to do next. Pressed up against her body was the opened yearbook and there was my 17-year-old face smiling back at me. The bad haircut, the weird clothes, and the pretentious senior quote all making this the single least fun moment of my semester, if not the entire year.

That was when I realized that the only two students not hovering and giggling around Carrie were the two moms in the class. The two women, both over the age of 30, kept their heads down. They got it.  They understood the horror I now faced. And this is a horror that no woman in her 40s should have to deal with, at least unprepared. I was confronted by my own teenage silliness and desire to be trendy.

We think we can forget the mistakes of our past, but apparently not the clothing mistakes.

One young man snickered behind me and suddenly the room erupted in voices—all seemed to be directed at me.  I couldn’t make out any specific words. My only thought was “get that book now.”

Carrie was trying to explain herself, but the rush of embarrassment-blood kept me from understanding her. I reached out for the offending object and the book slid gently into my desperate hands, snapping shut with a satisfying thud. I pointedly put it into Carrie’s backpack, and all of those who’s been gathered around her rushed to their desks. Then the murmurs started. Finally, one intrepid young man asked “is that earring you’re wearing in the yearbook photo a chicken foot?” Sigh. They will forever look at  me, and think about that damn high school senior picture. I’m doomed.

Carrie speaks up all the time in class now. I think I’m happy for her.

I haven’t decided yet.

About the Juggler: Kat Kiefer-Newman currently teaches as an adjunct instructor at two colleges in two different departments. In addition to her busy working (and driving) schedule she attends conferences presenting her research, is in the last stages of finishing her Ph.D., takes care of her elderly father, has recently packed up and sent off to college her second daughter, chats in status updates with her students on Facebook, does not hand out her cell phone number to said students despite their pleadings, and in her spare time she plays in her organic veggie garden. (And though she will never admit it, she also enjoys reading trashy vampire novels.)

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