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Column: The Circle of Teaching, Learning and Life

Many of us approach retirement with at least some measure of anxiety and trepidation. As a longtime professor of history and social sciences at Stevens Tech in Hoboken, N.J., some very specific questions arose. What would replace the classroom, with its daily joys of teaching and learning with students? Where would I find inspiration? What activities would be paramount in my new phase of life?

For me, these questions were answered as I undertook a retirement Odyssey that brought my future face to face with my past.

My journey began when an alumnus asked me a simple question: “Are you going to have a retirement party?”

Without hesitation or premeditation, I responded, “Why should I have one party with 100 attendees when I could enjoy 100 individual dinners on different nights, hosted by one of my alumni students?”

Thus was sparked a four-year journey of targeted reunions with ex-undergrads, now accomplished adults, who joined me in an adventure that superseded the boundaries of time and experience. This Odyssey carried me along a giant circle of teaching, learning and life.

From my files of left-behind term papers, tests and reports, I made a list of selected students I wanted to see again. An adventure began, which, to this point, has included 88 dinners!

The first reunion set the tone and pattern for all subsequent affairs.

“Have what you want,” said my erstwhile pupil, now my host. “All the food is great — and we’re celebrating your career as an educator and mentor.”

During this first conversation, as in all that followed, animated narrative swirled as my accomplished ex-student excitedly illustrated the tale of his life, covering years or decades of details about jobs, growth experiences, signal successes, families and children.

After completing the main course, for dessert I would return the old papers or exams and present my ex-charges with a copy of one of my books and some of my published op-eds. Alumni were frequently stunned and delighted with these “dolci.” As I consider the entire series of teacher-student reunions, three observations stand out.

First, upon meeting, we sensed immediately that the bonds forged through teaching, learning, understanding and advising had, over time, made us peers. We quickly rediscovered camaraderie suspended in what seemed like fleetingly brief quanta of time.

Second, most of the students’ personalities had not changed greatly over the decades. They had become compounded versions of their younger selves, with enlarged, powerful personae, but not different personalities as such. G enerally speaking, character-wise they are who they were — only more so.

My third observation is the one which matters most to me. I found out how much I had influenced them, both as students at Stevens and, like an unseen presence, throughout their adult lives.

Many assured me that they had talked about me with their children and sought to pass on to them the ethical, socially conscious outlook I had helped them to formulate as students. Most important, all remembered how I had stressed the value of entrepreneurial careers as a route to maximize personal potential and freedom. Remarkably, a majority of them had been able to follow my advice.

After the reunion dinners, about half of the participants remained in periodic contact with me. For these, there were to be lots of new involvements as we taught and learned from each other in a series of unexpected adventures. I counseled several of them through personal difficulties. I helped plan a political campaign for another.

Additionally I have met and advised a number of alumni children on career preparations, even in one case on completing a bachelor’s thesis in history! Moreover, whenever I asked for advice on matters troubling me, these alumni freely offered their wisdom.

Amazing things can happen when students and teachers continue mutual association in an unfinished quest for knowledge and understanding along the great circle of teaching, learning and life.

Silvio Laccetti is a retired professor of social sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.