Annual Review

2011 was a year of ups and downs, triumph and heartbreak, masterpieces and missed opportunities. Or so I’ve heard.

Year-in-review lists depress me, and this time of year you can find them in abundance: Where We Went, What We Listened To, The Year’s Best and Worst Dressed. Where did I go? I went to Florida with my 75-year-old parents. What did I listen to? I downloaded “Too Much Heaven” by the Bee Gees. And while Lady Gaga wore meat and Kate Middleton wore Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen, I’m still wearing the Merona wool skirt I got at Target eight years ago.

I went on some dates, but didn’t meet Mr. Right. I ate at Subway more times than I’d care to admit. I finally read the first three books in the Harry Potter series. And although I bought Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, it remains somewhere on my desk under a pile of bills. I don’t need end-of-the-year lists to remind me that time is passing and I’ve missed a few things.

Not long ago, one of the students in a college course I teach in St. Cloud approached me after class, saying that he had a question, and that he also needed to talk to me about something. Now, when I first started teaching, I wasn’t much older than my pupils, and every once in a while, I’d get the feeling that one of them had a crush on me. He’d be the quiet young man in the front row, chin resting on his hands, smiling up at me, failing to take notes, and seeming to absorb every word I said. He’d work hard all semester, sometimes penning a story about unrequited love. At the end of the term, he’d write me a nice note about how much he enjoyed the class. This student fit that description.

“Do you have a minute?” he asked, slinging his backpack over his shoulder.

“Sure,” I said.

He asked me a question about point-of-view in fiction-writing. Then, after thanking me for clearing things up for him, he said, “Well, so, there’s one more thing. And I don’t know if this is going to sound really weird, or what, but, well, you’ve probably noticed that I kind of, like, stare at you a lot in class?” he said.

Oh geez. Oh damn, I thought, preparing myself to let him down gently, to firmly set the boundary between teacher and student.

“Anyway,” he continued, “if I’m always staring at you, it’s because….” I waited. Here it comes, I thought. Awkward. “Well,” he said, “it’s just…you look almost exactly like my mom.”

A writer friend of mine, a guy now in his late 60s, once admitted to me that he still felt like he was 28. In his head, at least, he would always be 28. I wasn’t much older than that at the time, and so I didn’t get it. I looked at the creases around his eyes, his bifocals and receding hairline, and thought, Buddy, you are not 28.

Now, standing in the silence of my student’s blushing admission, I got it.

But where had the time gone? Sure, the students looked bewildered when I mentioned The Cosby Show or typewriters or card catalogs, all features of my own time in college. And it was true that they’d rung in Y2K wearing footie pajamas. But in my head, I wasn’t much older than they were…was I?

In 1995, I was 28 (and so, presumably, was my student’s mother). The movie Braveheart was released that year. Bryan Adams topped the charts with “Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?” Howard Stern was John Blackwell’s worst-dressed person, and TIME magazine’s Man of the Year was Newt Gingrich.

The years since, in review, have been busy. I’ve seen my parents through surgeries, washed mounds of dishes, had my heart busted, filed my taxes, and caulked around the tub. And, like my student’s mother, I’ve been helping the next generation launch itself into the world. So naturally I’ve missed a few restaurant openings, and I’m still wearing boot-cut instead of skinny jeans.

I looked at the young man standing in front of me. Rather than bruised, I suddenly felt protective. “Your mother must be a wonderful person,” I said.

“She is,” he beamed.

Shannon Olson, the author of the novels Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling, is a regular contributor to “Last Word.”