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When I was a graduate student back in the ‘90s, one particularly stern and unforgiving professor would not cut students a break on anything. We assumed he had purposefully eliminated joy from his life so that he could concentrate all the more on ripping our papers to shreds and belittling us in the classroom, semester after semester. This was a man who did not chit-chat, and who certainly never admitted error. We assumed he ate bricks for breakfast and lived in a dungeon off-campus.
So we raised our eyebrows and said nothing one afternoon when he walked in late for class, his left hand wrapped in a mitten of white gauze. He walked to the podium, set down his bag, and stared at his white bandage. “My three year old daughter wanted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” he began. “I was cutting it in half when I sliced open my hand. This did not faze my daughter, who took no notice of the blood pouring out.” He looked up. “She just wanted the sandwich.” I wanted to feel sorry for him, or at least some warmth, but it was too late: he’d been hard on us for too long. I only knew him as a jerk, albeit a smart one.
I always remember this story when I start to feel similarly misunderstood. When my students start hating me, my house is a mess, my patio door won’t slide, my hot water heater is producing one thimble of hot water per day, my sciatic nerve is inflamed, my joints are stiff, my heart is breaking, my spirit is low, my mail-order prescription for Solve-It-All is lost somewhere in Alabama, and the sergeant in me is forcing my soldier to buck up and carry on no matter what, I think to myself, poor me, poor me. I work so hard and try to do good and all I get is a hard time. My whole life is work, work, work—I do it all for everybody else—and this is the thanks I get. I make sandwiches for the world, then stab myself…and nobody knows or cares. At least that’s how it feels.
But then my level-headed niece from Tucson drives up to give me chocolate kisses and a chrysanthemum. She convinces me to buy ten Solve-It-All pills at the drugstore for fifty bucks because even though my insurance won’t pay for their own delivery mistake, I need to be able to walk again. A fresh rain falls in Arizona, and I finally get a good night’s sleep. My cats—who have been licking my tears for days—are so happy to see me smile that they dash through the house, knocking stuff over, scooting their smelly butts over every rough surface with their hind legs high in the sky: Team Wallenda back in action. I just laugh.
I want to apologize to that professor from long ago for not caring as much as I could have about his injury. I should have known that teachers are people too. Maybe he'd made the mistake of forgetting that students are also people, which I now know is easy to do. In memory of my best friend who passed away this week—who set the standard for giving her best to others and maintaining a positive attitude, and who never gave in to the poor-me’s—I raise my tea cup to her feisty spirit and say, “Don’t forget to let me know what it’s like out there. You said you would. And thanks for being the best teacher I’ve ever had.”