When a Teacher Becomes a Friend

"I think we just started coming to Mr. O's room for lunch. I don't even know if we asked permission. Probably not."

Wenjia Tang

Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.

This week she talks with a group of college students who have been friends with their high-school history teacher since they started eating lunch in his classroom sophomore year, discussing politics and sharing stories from their lives.They discuss how the students went from being afraid of their teacher to being close friends, how they've all kept in touch since the students left for college, and how their intergenerational, intercultural friendship has given them new perspectives.

The Friends

Mike Oliveira, a.k.a. "Mr. O," 42, a history teacher at Interlake High School, in Bellevue, Washington
Jasmine Sun, 19, a sophomore at Stanford University, major undeclared
Jessica Dai, 19, a sophomore at Brown University, studying computer science
Cayla Lee, 20, a sophomore at Harvard University, studying social studies and math
Christina Li, 20, a sophomore at Carnegie Mellon, studying finance and decision science

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Julie Beck: For the students: How long have you all been friends, and how did you meet?

Jasmine Sun: Our high school has a competitive debate team, and all four of us joined as freshmen. We were the only four people in our year who stuck it out through the whole year. And when you're stuck with the same three other people for hours and hours on end, you have to like each other, or else you would quit.

Jessica Dai: People called us “the debate girls.”

Jasmine: My high-school community was pretty apolitical, and debate was one of the communities where we learned about a lot of things. Bellevue's kind of a suburb, and it's pretty privileged and homogenous. At least our classrooms felt like it. So we'd challenge each other to do our best to think about things that weren't in our immediate vicinities.

Beck: When did you meet Mr. O? (Should I call you Mike or Mr. O?)

Mike Oliveira: It's funny, everybody calls me O; my students call me Mr. O. So Jasmine, I met her during her freshman year, on the tennis team, because I coached tennis. And then the other three young ladies I met in class when they were in their sophomore year—an International Baccalaureate class in U.S. history.

Jasmine: I think we started talking by going to his tutorial, which is a half hour after school where students can ask questions about homework. I'm not sure if any of us asked questions about homework, though. 'Cause he's really scary.

Cayla Lee: I can confirm that Mr. O was really scary.

Beck: How so?

Mr. O: I've been wanting to know this for years. How so?

Cayla: As little 15-year-olds, it's easy to get intimidated. Mr. O has a very sarcastic sense of humor, and he yells a lot in class, but, like, in a funny way. But I think it scares a lot of kids off.

From left to right: Mr. O, Jessica Dai, Jasmine Sun. Courtesy of Jasmine Sun.

Beck: Mr. O, were you the debate adviser as well?

Mr. O: No. I have nothing to do with debate. Debate would use my room at the end of the day, so I think because I was in here, they would show up a little early, and conversation started that way.

Christina Li: Once we became more familiar with O, the four of us began joining him for lunch, or dropping in during lunch hour to tell him about our day, or ask about his day, and share whatever was going on in our minds.

Beck: What would you talk about?

Christina: I think as teenagers, we all complained a lot, and we would always go to O to detail our daily trivial matters, and ask him for advice. O would listen to us, but his very sarcastic humor usually put everything into perspective. He’d be very realistic and make sure that we weren't too caught up in our everyday troubles.

Mr. O: I always felt like my job was just to listen. One of the things that has always been cool to me about the friendship is that they come from a totally different mind-set and background than what I have. And to see a window into their lives was cool. The topics you guys you were doing for debate led into more political conversations that weren't tied to class, which I think is where things moved away from just a normal teacher-student kind of relationship.

Jasmine: O told us that his goal through teaching U.S.-history classes was to plant the seeds of awareness of inequality—racial inequality, social inequality. Stuff like looking at maps of, say, black migration after Reconstruction. Or looking at maps of segregation within our own city. And he wouldn't say “Oh, you should believe X or Y.” But by giving us that information, he planted the seeds for people later in life, maybe even years later, to have a realization, like: Oh my God. I suddenly understand all of these things. That was really important to my own understanding of education.

Cayla: What Jasmine said about Mr. O’s history style parallels the way he talks with us, because he doesn't really impose value judgments on how we feel or what we're going through, but just always provides perspective.

Jasmine: I will say, there was a lot of value in our everyday complaining. Because the four of us come from pretty similar backgrounds. Not exactly the same, obviously, but all of our parents emigrated to the U.S. from different places in Asia. And there's a lot of pressure to go into certain careers, to achieve certain amounts, some of which aligns with stereotypes. It was cathartic to talk to each other, but oftentimes that would make us more stressed out, because we were all stressed about the same thing, with the same kind of familial pressures. It was just very grounding to talk to O. Because rather than letting that energy fester within ourselves and within our communities, we were able to gain some perspective that came from somewhere else.

Cayla: I agree. I feel like Mr. O was my first adult friend. It's hard to have adult friends when you're a high schooler.

Beck: So you guys kept eating lunch together the rest of your time in high school?

Jasmine: I mean, the cafeteria was crowded and dirty. So I think we just started coming to O's room. I don't even know if we asked permission. Probably not.

Beck: How did your friendship evolve over the rest of high school, and after you guys graduated?

Christina: I think especially senior year, we got to see more into his life. For example, hearing the thoughts that are running through his head as he's teaching day-to-day. He would ask questions like “What does the student think when I say this?” And when O was expecting his first baby, he told us, and that was really special to me. That was a very defining moment in which I realized, Hopefully we provided as much value to O as he has to us. It made me realize, also, that this friendship was something that would last a lot longer than just my high-school years.

Mr. O: My daughter was born two years ago. It was a very difficult process for my wife. The girls didn't know that I was going through all these baby issues, wondering, Will my daughter be healthy? and all these kinds of things. So having them come in was always this super wonderful distraction from that part of my life. It was one of those situations where we didn't tell a whole lot of people about the upcoming birth, because we weren't sure which way it would go. It wasn't until a week or so before my daughter was born that I announced it at school to the kids. And I made an announcement to the ladies first, before I made it to the other students. But it was really impactful to have those conversations with them, knowing that I had this dark haze in the background. It also put things into perspective.

Beck: How so?

Mr. O: During the things that we were going through with my daughter, the terror and the fear of that, I had the hope of, if this thing does work out,  I kept thinking these would be great, strong young female role models for Addison.

Cayla, Christina, Jasmine, Jessica: Aww!

Mr. O: Now it got weird.

Beck: Have you introduced the girls to your family?

Mr. O: They've met Addison, my daughter, a couple of times. We've gone to the park.

Cayla: It was on Mercer Island.

Mr. O: I live in Seattle, in the city, and the girls live in the suburbs. So we met in between the two. That was fun, to see them interact with her. I've always been very shocked as to how much they've cared about Addison. So I've always sent pictures, and Jasmine created a Facebook group for that.

Jessica: I had a folder in my email with the label “Addison Pictures” because we've gotten so many of them. That’s why Jasmine made the group.

Beck: Can you describe what the Facebook group is, and when that started?

Jasmine: Mr. O used to always call us the Goof Troop, because we would roll in with our goofy problems, I guess. And you're not allowed to friend teachers on Facebook until you graduate probably, right?

Mr. O:  It was toward the end of the senior year.

Jasmine: Eventually he let us add him on Facebook. Because we had these super long email chains with baby pictures in them, and I wanted a way to keep in consistent contact. All four of us were going to different schools, and none of us were in the area, and our breaks would never align. So I just made a Facebook group called “The Goof Troop” or something like that.

Beck: Do you remember why you started calling them the Goof Troop?

Courtesy of Jasmine Sun

Mr. O: So the Goof Troop is—I don't know if you guys even know this—it's from an old cartoon.

Cayla: I didn't know that.

Mr. O: Yeah, with Goofy, like Mickey Mouse Goofy. And he had this little kids' show called The Goof Troop.

Jasmine: In the Facebook group, O posts a lot of baby videos that we like, because we're stressed out still, and they make you feel better. And then also sometimes we'll add questions. Like if we go to an interesting talk, we'll post that and be like, "What do you think?" Or whenever we visit, that's how we coordinate a meet-up. It's nice, because when your life is chaotic, it’s easy to forget little happy things, like Addison is walking, Addison is talking.

Also I remember before he announced he was having a baby, we had this theory. We were like, “O is softer this year, and we don't know why.” He’s usually very sarcastic and gruff. And why would he be nicer to these kids than he was to us? Then he sent us this email that was like, "Come to my room during lunch. It's important.” And then everything made sense.

Cayla: I remember discussing the email and what it could possibly mean. And we predicted that he had a baby. He was very sentimental around that time.

Beck: Wow, very intuitive.

Jasmine: He doesn't like to be seen as sentimental. It's not his personal brand.

Beck: Is that true, Mr. O? What is your personal brand?

Mr. O: I didn't realize I had a personal brand. I'm face-palming and laughing, because I hadn't heard the backstory on this. But I probably was much different at that moment in time, and so it makes sense that they were like, “What the hell is going on?”

Beck: Are there any other standout memories you have of how your relationship became a more outside-of-school friendship?

Christina: This touches on the more intercultural interactions that we have: One of the first few breaks when I came back home from Pittsburgh, where I go to school, there was this new Asian bakery that had just opened up. And I had told O before about this Chinese cake, this kind of dough with filling inside, and he had no idea what I was talking about. And when I visited that day for break, I was very insistent on getting this cake with a small filling in it and bringing it to O, and showing him what it was and making him eat it. I was so excited to have him try it and see a part of my culture.

Jessica: Also, I remember in maybe junior year—do you know what bubble tea is?

From left to right: Jasmine, Christina, Jessica, Cayla. Courtesy of Jasmine Sun.

Beck: Mm-hmm.

Jessica: O had never heard of what it was. We were trying to describe it to him, and he just didn't understand.

Cayla: We went to the bubble-tea store, and we were trying to think what drink we should put the boba in. We were thinking, what is the whitest thing we could get? So we ended up putting boba in a smoothie or something, so that it would be more palatable to him. But it actually backfired, because Mr. Oliveira doesn't like sweet things. So we would have been much better off just getting him a jasmine tea or something.

Beck: Mr. O, do you like bubble tea now?

Mr. O: As Cayla said, the one they got me was unbelievably sweet. So I did not prefer that version, that's for sure. I do enjoy it, but that one was unbelievably sweet.

Jasmine: We were trying to be culturally sensitive. We were like, “Should we get taro?” because we like taro. But then we were like, “White people don't like taro.” Our cultural-sensitivity practices have improved, I think.

Beck: What is the value of an intergenerational friendship like this? What has it added to your life?

Cayla: I felt this after my first semester of college when I came back and visited Mr. Oliveira: I had changed so much as a result of being away in a completely unfamiliar environment. Coming back and reflecting on the semester with him was valuable to me, because he has seen me grow throughout the years. We really did talk to him about things that probably our parents don't even know.

Christina: I enjoy psychology and thinking about how generations are changing. It’s always interesting to talk to him about his life, and then talk about my life and talk about Addison's life. Those three very different generations are something that I enjoy reflecting on.

Jessica: I think our friendship has allowed me to keep my stressors and concerns in perspective. Especially in thinking about what kinds of decisions I make about my life going forward, and how I visualize what my life looks like in 20, 30 years. Having someone like O there is an interesting way for me to process my thoughts, and think about what really matters to me.

Jasmine: Our first normal exposure to adults is parents. Parents are there to guide you in a more direct sense—it's their job. They'll have opinions on what you should do. O has opinions, I'm sure, but because he's so nonjudgmental, it is that approach of letting us figure things out but also planting seeds of guidance. And that nonjudgmental but still older advisory perspective is really nice.

Mr. O: Getting to know them, it's helped me massively in my own teaching. I actually wish that y'all could be in my class now, and see how it has changed. Because I've been able to better understand your generation. In class today, we were looking at the difference between the generation of Martin Luther King Jr. and their tactics for civil rights, and how that has evolved with Black Lives Matter, and the tactics that they're using. It’s cool to see the next generation and how they push things. As a teacher, yes, I teach content, but that's the stuff that I care very little about. It's more about being able to create these relationships to help them tackle whatever's going to be out there in their future.

If you or someone you know should be featured on The Friendship Files, get in touch at friendshipfiles@theatlantic.com, and tell us a bit about what makes the friendship unique.