“We Don’t Choose What People Remember”

A couple of years ago, I walked into my office to begin my day, sat down to turn on my computer, and noticed a slither of red illuminated my phone receiver. I briefly shrugged it off, deciding I’d check in a few minutes because I was on an emotional high from an email I received earlier that morning.

The email was from a student I had my first or second year of teaching 8th grade US History (1994-95). He had become an elementary principal in a local school district. Mind you, I last saw or talked to him when he graduated from GLHS. My book had just been published, and unknown to me, he read it and wanted to share his thoughts. It was a glowing review of the book and a couple of stories of things I did or said to him as a student that positively impacted him. His kind words surprised and humbled me because I didn’t remember what he experienced. I was grateful for his kind gesture and felt great coming into the office that day!

Once I turned on my computer and checked my work email, the illuminated phone receiver shined brightly as a reminder to check my voicemail. I picked up the receiver, pressed the voicemail button, tapped my password, and listened to the prompts. I selected the first prompt and heard the following words:

“Hello, Mr. Carter. You may not remember me, but I was one of your students when you were Principal at Lincoln High School. I just wanted to tell you that I hope you aren’t doing to other students what you did to me. You embarrassed me during an expulsion hearing and made me feel so small in front of my mom. Your words hurt me deeply, and because of you, I am pursuing my doctorate in cultural anthropology. I am better than you, smarter than you, and despite what you said, I will always be more educated than you…”

The caller continued to share how my words broke them. My head was spinning as I tried to recall this interaction. With a shaky head, I scribbled the caller’s words on any piece of paper I could find as quickly as possible. I was shaken, embarrassed, and, quite frankly, confused. After a few more colorful and choice words, the caller politely ended the message and hung up…

I sat back in my chair, dazed and defeated, and tried to process the situation. Who was this person? When did this happen? What am I going to do about it? I slowly sat up to look at the incoming number, but it didn’t match the caller’s name. Should I call them? Will I get defensive if we talk? What should I do?

In an instant, the joy I felt from the email was quickly replaced by shame and worry. What popped into my head were the following words of Dr. Joe Sanfelippo, former Superintendent of Fall School School District in Wisconsin,

We don’t get to choose what people remember. Treat every interaction as if it matters because it does.

I took a few more minutes (days) to see if I could recall any experience like that, but my mind was blank. Whether I remembered or not, what mattered most was that the caller remembered it as it happened to them. I appreciate the lesson and reminder to treat everyone with the dignity they inheritedly deserve.

The last few weeks of school can be stressful, so let’s remember Dr. Joe Sanfelippo’s words and create moments that create positive memories for ourselves and others.

Be Great,


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2 thoughts on ““We Don’t Choose What People Remember”

  1. Thank you for having the courage of sharing the voicemail message. Anyone who has been in our position long enough has experienced both the highs of former students telling you how much (without you realizing it at the time) you impacted their lives, and from those because of a terse word or action, you didn’t. I have no doubt that your positive impact outnumbers your negative interactions by thousands to one. I know because as a principal you positively impacted my children and as a colleague you’ve positively impacted me.

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