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Still in Love With Their Stories

I HAVE 10 minutes for lunch and an hour to wind up my news story and deliver it to my editor. I dash out of the office and across the street to the sandwich shop. My mind is on my news hook, when suddenly my former incarnation as a high school English teacher 10 years ago intrudes. Because there is Scott.

Scott - the kid who drove all of us teachers crazy. We spent 2-hour faculty meetings strategizing over how to handle him. He was a jumpy, live-wire kid, a struggle to pin down long enough to teach. He'd play with my determination, squirming out of English assignments like a wily fish from an angler's hook. He would make excuses, fake temper tantrums, switch the subject from "Mice and Men" to his boss or his car or his girlfriend. As a last resort, he'd apply his charming grin. Anything to get away from t he books he had to read to graduate.

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He plagued me, but I liked him. In fact, I was biased in his favor. Not because he listened to me - which he didn't. Or because he charmed me - though he did. But because he could write.

Scott may not have known he had talent. All he seemed to care about was pursuing girls. His classmates hooted at his spelling errors, which were scattered like dice across his papers. But I envied his storytelling style, as I worked weekends to develop my own.

There's something about a born storyteller that's glorious, whether he or she knows it or not. I wonder if Scott even remembers that beach story he scrawled for homework. I do. It was about a kid who stumbles upon his brother in the dunes, making out with a girl. The kid immediately switches his attention to catching a frog; he wasn't ready yet to know about sex. Scott's story was a psychological gem. It showed that behind his glib ways, he knew what made humans tick.

I tucked away that story in a carton in my attic, the one marked "students' writing."

Now, a decade later in a coffee shop near the newspaper where I work, Scott probably doesn't remember he ever wrote a story in 10th grade. He's not my student anymore, and I'm no longer his teacher.

I ask him what he's doing and discover he works at the factory about which, in my second career, I am writing a news story, for which my deadline looms. I ask him about contract negotiations. I maneuver an antimanagement quote out of him. Now I'm the charming manipulator.

In the middle of our conversation, a woman walks into the sandwich shop, plucks a blond kid from a stroller, and sits down next to Scott. He turns and flashes his wonderful grin at her. My word. Scott's married.

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In high school, he was always inappropriately in love. With someone else's girlfriend, with a teacher, or with a dropout who tried to ruin his slim shot at graduating. He wrote about them all in a whimsical tale - I remember its title, "Boy, Was I in Love" - about a kid who was in love with being in love and who fooled himself into seeing each inept try at romancing girls as a grand coup.

I want to shake his hand to congratulate him for growing up. But I remember my deadline, make my goodbyes, and rush across to the office to file my "strike averted" story. All afternoon, however, I think of the kid who seemed so out of control but wrote stories that were so wise and wonderfully structured.

My former students pop up at the oddest times. I live four miles from the two towns where I taught high school, so I'm bound to meet up with them, but I seem to do so at the most unlikely times and places.

While getting cash at an ATM machine, I meet Ricky, whose short, vivid poems about cars I still can picture, though they may have faded from his mind. Biking to Walden Pond one day, I come upon Nancy leading a bicycle tour. My sweet hippie student whose poems charmed me is now business manager for a high-powered advertising firm.

I pop into a convenience store for potato chips one day and find Bubs is checking stock. His poetry read like his music: brilliant, atonal, annoyingly obscure. I would push him to make clear what his mix of baroque images and abstract phrases meant, but he refused. And when I tried to get him to write more, he'd shrug. All that mattered was his sax.

I remember them all. Not their names, necessarily. But the way they wrote stays with me, like a fingerprint. I can picture their handwriting, their spelling errors, their favorite themes.

These people may be 10 years older, but I still see them as the students I struggled with as I tried to get them to put their stories down on paper. I remember most vividly the ones who liked to write.

I 'm lugging a 5-gallon coffee urn back to Harvard Square one day after a writers' conference, when I realize the kid I'm squeezing past is Mike. The ultimate cynic who hid under his green sweatshirt for four years, waiting to grow up. His only loves were punk music, comics, and gory stories. Good gory stories.

I was the only teacher willing to work with him. I was convinced his subject matter would expand as soon as his growth spurt hit. His tour de force was a tale about a murderous ping pong ball. In the story, Mike killed off almost every student and teacher in the school.

But I saw that his fast-paced drama was so good I could learn from it.

Outside a Harvard Square theater one day, I meet Brian. A tall man now, he seems pleased to see me. He describes his stint at the "Foreign Policy" journal and his current gig as an AP reporter. It's ironic: I'm just now breaking into a field he's a pro at.

NOT all my students make it. Once a week, I spot Tom on the street, and if I don't, I worry. He sleeps in a church basement and asks me for a dollar whenever he sees me. Sometimes he walks by in a daze, cursing the air. Other times his hair is combed, his eyes clear, and he stops to talk. Usually about something I can't follow, like astronomy or medieval kings. He keeps talking; he knows that if he pauses, I'm bound to ask, "How are you?"

He showed me a poem once, one he'd scrawled on a crumpled scrap of paper. The images were full of swords, death, and dangerous weather. I felt like I should do something to fix him up - keep him after school, threaten him with a bad grade.

But 10 years have passed now. Tom is still around. It's clear he's not my clay to mold.

Each year, my teaching sinks one layer deeper into my past. Already, I suspect I pass by students I don't recognize or who don't recognize me. But I don't easily forget the talent my students themselves may have ignored, but that I loved and sometimes envied. The stories in my attic are still vivid in my mind.

As I write this memoir, Scott calls. Another year has passed since I bumped into him at the sandwich shop. He's had his ups and downs. He's gone through a divorce but is still a devoted father. He's called because he wants my help. He wants to write a book for parents about the warning signs that a kid is on drugs. He's thinking now of his own child's future.

Scott, who spent so much energy avoiding schoolwork, and who probably never knew he had a talent, now wants to use it.

This time it's I who grins.

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