I was too tired last night to write everything I was thinking about graduation--and I knew I was going to have to get up at 4:30am to catch my 6:45am flight home. But the airport is nearly deserted this morning, and I flew through security, leaving me with free time (and free airport wifi, one of the many nice things about Rochester) to follow up on my last post.
During my first few years at RIT, I thought of graduations as goodbyes. I'd had students for a class or two, taught them what I could, and then they were gone. But over the years, I've realized that with the best students that's not the case. There are many students whose graduation has marked the passage from student to colleague, and whose friendships I treasure. They're the ones who don't think twice about calling me Liz instead of Professor Lawley, who still send me email updates about their newest job, who show up in my IM buddy list, who add me as a friend in Facebook, who post comments to my blog, and who even have my cell phone number.
Students like Jared Campbell and Jon Dunn, Eric Willis and Brendyn Alexander, Chris Blessing and Jay Bibby. (And yes, I know those are all men's names. That's the result of teaching in a department that averages fewer than 5% women in its freshman class. There have been women who made a difference in my life as teacher as well, though. Pooja Kapoor, Beth Levine, Katie Giebel, Sayali Sakhardande, Sara Berg, Tara Parekh, just to name a few.) Not all of them were straight-A students (though many were). But every one of them is someone I'd recommend without hesitation for a job, because of their creativity and initiative, their integrity and intelligence.
It was Jared who taught me that my students can be as aware of my personal ups and downs as I can be of theirs--I'll always remember the evening that he stopped by my office to see if I was okay. I was surprised by his question, and wondered aloud why he was asking. "I read your blog," he replied, "and just wanted to make sure you were okay."
It was Erhardt who made me aware of just how much an astute observer can learn about a person from their bookmarks, when he stopped by my office nearly two years ago to ask with concern whether I was leaving RIT. I couldn't imagine what had made him ask that--until he mentioned that he'd seen the bookmarks I'd listed for "homeschooling" and "Seattle" on del.icio.us. (I've been a bit more careful about what I do and don't put on social bookmarking sites since then!)
Brendyn helped remind me of just how much raw talent and enthusiasm can accomplish, and how much of an impact we as professors can have on shaping that. He bounded into my life (and Elouise's) at an advisory board dinner his freshmen year, as full of energy and curiosity and affection as an overgrown labrador puppy. It's been a gift to watch him grow over the past four years, from 'sycophant' (not really, but that's a long-standing joke) to self-assured young man with a Microsoft job offer in his pocket. I learned a lot about courage from both Brendyn and Jon, both of whom had to face some challenging situations during the time that I knew them.
Eric showed me how gracefully someone can make the transition from student to employee to colleague. In what felt like the blink of an eye he went from being a cocky student in my web design class to being the best student grader I ever had to teaching as an adjunct in our department while running (and growing) the software development team for a local business. I spent an hour over dinner on Thursday evening trying to recruit him onto my team to develop a new social application, and I'll consider myself lucky if he can find a few hours of free time in his schedule to work with me.
Chris Blessing was a lesson to me, early in my teaching career, that some of those students with a hefty dose of attitude have it for good reason. At a time when the web was still relatively new, and most of my students wouldn't have known an HTML entity if it bit them in the ass, Chris coded (and designed) circles around not just the others in the class but me as well. I didn't admit it at the time, of course (those Jedi mind tricks are important for surviving as a teacher), but he taught me some humility. (Yes, Eric, you did too. But Chris did it first.)
Jay reminded me that my students could take the seeds of an idea I'd given them and grow it well beyond anything I could have done. He started his first blog in my class, but then went on to create one of the most widely-read blog sites on casual games, Jay Is Games, which probably gets more hits in a day than any my sites gets in a week.
A few weeks ago, I got an email out of the blue from a student who'd taken a class from me years ago. We hadn't stayed in touch, but he was writing to let me know how much of what he'd learned he still used every day--and to ask if I had any talented students I wanted to send his way to hire. And few weeks before that, an article on web design popped up in my del.icio.us links with a title that looked familiar...it turned out to be written by one of my former students, and it was clear evidence that what he learned in that class had stuck with him. A good reminder that influence in the classroom can extend well beyond it.
There are others, of course. Far more than I've listed here. Each fall when I walk into the lab for my freshman multimedia class, the new students lined up behind the computers, full of promise and potential. But the friendly ghosts of their predecessors live in those labs, as well, reminding me that when I see these freshmen file past me years later, they're not necessarily walking past me and out of my life. Graduation doesn't have to mean goodbye.