For more than two decades, I have watched the movie It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart, usually right around Thanksgiving time. It is a sentimental movie, but the underlying theme is more than pertinent as a memory refresher for love and friendship. With each viewing, I fantasize about the movie ending similarly occurring in my life. Of course, tears stream down my eyes with each viewing. My romanticized thoughts don’t necessarily have people pouring money on a table to get me out of financial trouble, but pouring an abundance of appreciation.
Last night was my magical moment. One of my former students, Balázs Varga, invited us to try a new restaurant in City Park. Knowing that we were leaving Thursday for Spain, dining out was not high on the priority list. However, we had recruited him to do the ‘meet and greet’ with the Spanish ladies involved in our home exchange. Obligation prevented me from negating the offer. We in turn extended the invite to some friends, one of which was also a former student, Szilvia Zörgő and our American friend Kat McFadden.
If I were still writing for Frommer’s, the restaurant would never get a nod for inclusion, but it was passable for a breezy light-hearted night with good people. It was rather surprising when the check came so soon after eating, not a typical Hungarian trait. One of our merry-makers, Szilvia suggested we return to the old ELTE campus at Ajtósi Dürer sor to see how the building had been converted into a pub. Strangely, her reasoning for visiting the campus never raised any red flags in my mind. Coincidentally, I had met up with a student from my 2nd year of teaching; he initially wanted to meet in the garden area of the same campus. It was only a thunderstorm that thwarted that plan. I had not been back to the campus since we moved from there six years ago.
On the way to the campus, our friend Kat did an Oscar winning performance of needing a bathroom, which took us across City Park in the opposite direction of the campus. Later it was discovered this was a purposeful time waster for others to arrive where they needed to be. After finding a small dive with questionable bathroom sanitation, we stayed for another beer in payment for the use of the facilities. My desire to return to the campus was dwindling by the second. I wanted to please Szilvia, but Kat expressed such an intense interest in seeing where I once taught, refusing was not an option. Why didn’t it strike me as strange that Kat has been here over a year, but never cared before?
By this time, we were so far away, we waited for the bus. Much to Ron’s protests, but at my insistence we got off at the wrong stop, causing us to walk one additional bus stop. As we approached the building, Sylvia Finali another former student was standing outside texting on her phone. It was astounding to run into her, but she invited us in to join her gathering.
I was so overcome with the transformation of what once was the cafeteria and coffee shop it took more than some minutes to realize there was an extraordinarily large group of people in the direction we were headed, yet there was no smaller group for Sylvia to include us. As we moved in closer, Aaron Hunter came into view. He was my first teaching partner at ELTE and I missed him dearly ever since he left. He stood up as did everyone else around him; each person started clapping. Talk about clueless! It still had not dawned on me what was happening. All the mystery books I read, I should be ashamed.
Aaron and Sylvia Finali devised this good-bye party in my honor. Secretly sending invitations through Facebook, they cast the net wide. Students from my first teaching year, 2002 were mingling with students as recent as 2014. They later apologized saying they found out too late that due to a Facebook glitch a number of people invited never actually received the invitation.
Needless to say, my sentimental nature took over and I started tearing up, not a shock to many of these dear people. Aaron gave a short speech extolling my teaching qualities that positively influenced his own teaching. Sylvia added to this from the students’ perspective. Then it was hug time. Being hug deficient, the evening replenished some of the lack. It was incredible.
Then there was the cake! Enormous, extraordinary, and finally delicious, each layer was a different flavor with the top one being sugar-free.
As I spoke with small groups, I had to eradicate traces of the rumor that we are moving back to the U.S. as well as other strings of untruths roaming around. This provided lively conversation hearing what others had heard and deconstructing it. In addition there was the opportunity to catch up with what they are doing in their lives.
So many students had wonderful anecdotes of things that I said or taught them that they have never forgotten. Best of all, there was an overwhelming sense that what I provided was supporting their self-worth and ability to succeed. It was exceptionally fulfilling to hear their stories of how their lives have been shaped since we last met. There was so much pride in all of their accomplishments. My favorite mantra “Think outside the box” was chanted too.
More than once, when a student thanked me for teaching them how to write, sharing how it has advanced their career, I had to add a quip of my own. There is a former student who reads my blog posts and then sends me the list of corrections for the mistakes I made. Some of this gang thought this was hilarious while others were appreciative that the table has turned, but they too still found the humor in it.
In retrospect, it boggles my mind how many people were in on this planning to get me to the venue, including Ron, yet I was oblivious. There was a definite Jimmy Stewart sensation or like Sally Fields is often misquoted from her Oscar speech “You like me! You really like me!”
As a last note, I have NEVER had a surprise party before in my life. What an amazing feeling. My heartfelt thanks to Aaron Hunter, Sylvia Finali, and all those who made this a lifetime achievement award evening.