I first learned this lesson from my wife’s mother, who is American and who taught mathematics in Nigeria for nearly three decades before she relocated to her home country after retirement.
She taught at (and later became the principal of) Borgu Secondary School in New Bussa, which is now in Niger State. New Bussa used to be my local government headquarters until 1988. So several people from my part of Borgu (which is in Kwara State) attended Borgu Secondary School and were taught by my mother-in-law whom I never knew until I came to America.
She was an inspirational teacher who produced generations of doctors, engineers, professors, etc. She was particularly popular with students because, being American, she never physically hit a student–like other teachers did. Plus, students loved her American accent and her self-conscious efforts to speak like Nigerians.
Anyway, many people from my area who discover that I’m married to her daughter always ask to speak with her through me, and on no occasion did she ever say she didn’t recognize a past student. So I told her she must have an uncommonly capacious memory to remember all her former students, given that she taught almost every student in the school from the 1970s to the early 2000s.
She admitted that it was not humanly possible to remember all her former students and added, “Don’t ever tell a past student you don’t remember them.” You may mess up with their most cherished school memories, she said.
I had a recent experience that materialized this priceless pedagogical wisdom for me. I had an influential Ghanaian teacher in my secondary school that I couldn’t stop to think about more than 30 years after he was forced back to his country by the infamous “Ghana-Must-Go” madness. He not only molded me at the inchoate stage of my intellectual development, he was also like a father to me.
He taught me karate and soccer outside school and often visited my family house. He praised my littlest accomplishments to high heavens and explained away my failings. He was also a philosopher whose delicate words of wisdom still abide with me today.
One day, on a whim, I decided to use by cyber-sleuthing skills to look for him. After days of search, I found him! He was excited to hear from a former student of his, but he said he had not the faintest recollection of me and what we did together. I was incredibly heartbroken and went into a mild situational depression for at least a week.
I still cherish him and nurse no hard feelings toward him for not remembering me. He told me the “Ghana-Must-Go” immigration purge was a traumatic experience for him. He probably chose to wipe clean his memories of Nigeria in order to cope with the emotional aftermath of the purge.
But my experience dramatizes the truism of my mother-in-law’s exhortation that, if you can help it, don’t ever tell a past student that you don’t remember them.