Monday, February 10, 2020

everyone doesn’t like chocolate

The first time I ever said that sentence out loud it was punctuated with a question mark.
Everyone doesn’t like chocolate? 

I’d like to tell you I was very young when I came to this important piece of learning, but I was probably in college.  For my entire life up to that point, it was beyond my comprehension that a living, breathing human being wouldn’t love chocolate just as much as I did.  I mean, it has so many great qualities.  It tastes wonderful, of course, but it’s also smooth, creamy, soothing, sweet, pure, and life-giving.  Milk chocolate is a food created for human enjoyment.  The temperature at which the flavors of chocolate are the most powerful just happens to be the average temperature of the human mouth.  As a child I loved chocolate and I would eat it as often as possible.  Everyone in my family loved chocolate too.  In fact, I didn’t know of anyone who didn’t absolutely love it.  Until I met someone who didn’t love chocolate.

Having met tons of students, over the years that I’ve been a teacher, I now understand that not only do some people have allergies and diets that prevent them from enjoying chocolate, but some people just downright don’t like the way it tastes.  It just isn’t their thing.  And you know what?  That’s ok.  It’s not wrong for people to not eat chocolate.  It really doesn’t have any impact on me at all other than my fading disbelief.  I guess if anything, it creates a better situation for me since that’s one less person I’ll have to fight the day after Christmas/Valentines Day/Easter when all the chocolate goes on sale at the local grocery store.  More for me, right?

Coming to that realization in college that everyone doesn’t love chocolate didn’t change how I felt about it.  It didn’t make it taste any worse and it didn’t change it’s nutritional value.  It didn’t lessen my cravings for chocolate and it certainly didn’t lower my chocolate intake.  I still really love chocolate. 

I remembered that everyone doesn’t love chocolate during the last year and it’s become an important piece of knowledge for me.  I’m a teacher at a university and if you know anything about me as a teacher, you know it’s important for me to relate to and interact with my students.  The classes I teach are difficult classes that require a lot of physical labor and effort in addition to a great deal of mental activity.  I understand that these classes are not great fun, so I try to counter that by doing fun things in class and allowing students to have some fun as well.  This is not an original idea, of course, it’s one I stole from Sesame Street just like every other wanna-be entertaining teacher did.  You mix the learning with a little entertainment and boom, you get students excited about education. 

You can be a tough, no-nonsense teacher as long as you mix in a little fun.  This has been my not-so-secret weapon since I began teaching 18 years ago.  I’ve been brutally honest with my students and haven’t pulled any punches with my grades and expectations.  But I also laugh with them and listen to them and talk to them about life.  The way I teach is an extension of my personality.  I believe that’s how it should be.  But you know what?  Not every student loves me.

Perhaps it’s narcissistic to compare myself to chocolate, but it’s an analogy that seems to work in my head.  You see, I know that not everyone likes me.  And even some who do like me – they just don’t connect with me.  I’m just not their thing.  But I try so hard to be fun and likeable, that it’s hard for me to accept this very reasonable truth.  Most students are socially adept enough to not let you know that they don’t like you.  I appreciate the effort that goes into something like that.  People who are like me, who hate social functions, know exactly what it looks like when you put on the smile, you make the small talk, and you just hope the situation is over soon.  I’ve recognized that look on some of my students’ faces over the years. 

Most days it’s easy enough to notice that and move on.  You notice that students gravitate to a different professor and you salute them for doing so respectfully.  You notice that some people don’t like you and you go on with your day.  But some days you get caught up in the rip tide of wanting to make them like you.  You get this idea that you can change their mind if you’re really nice and positive and eventually when you come to your senses that that sort of thing never works, you’re already miles out to sea. 

Teachers have to have thick skin.  We stand up in front of a group of humans who have every reason to be critical.  Some of us are even in the business of actually teaching the humans how to be critical more effectively! We are easy targets.  Our mistakes and mental lapses are public.  They see us misspell the word on the whiteboard.  They see us struggle with our software during a presentation.  They see us lose our temper when the straw finally breaks the camel’s back.  Some of us have almost no sense of fashion and every stain, every pimple, every bead of sweat running down your forehead is spotlighted, highlighted, and pointed out.  I’m lucky to have a sense of humor and a sense of self-worth that keeps me from crawling into a hole every night and never coming out. 

Even still, there are days when you notice the next student in line is faking that smile and probably wishing you didn’t exist and it just becomes too much.  You feel the salt water pulling you as you wonder what it is that you did to make them hate you.  You wonder if you just said something funny or kind if they’d stop hating you.  You wonder if you can win them over.  But you can’t and now the shoreline is gone and you don’t even know what direction to swim.  You’re lost in despair and self-doubt. 

Luckily, many of us have life preservers in the form of past students who have become friends and encouragers.  They have the perspective now to see what kind of teacher and what kind of person you really are and many of them are even thoughtful enough to let you know.  One recent swim I took with this rip tide had me way out looking for the shore when I got a message out of the blue from a former student.  The student was starting her second semester of grad school in the Northeast several years after her college graduation.  The note was short and sweet and probably only took a minute to type, but I have to tell you, that note rescued me. 

Everyone isn’t going to like chocolate and that’s ok.  Chocolate isn’t for everyone.  It’s ok that I’m not either. 

The former student’s note got me thinking.  We’ve all had at least one teacher that stands out in our memory for one reason or another.  What if we also took a minute to type out a note of thanks and encouragement to that teacher?  Who knows what an impact such a note might have.  Who knows how that note may rescue someone lost at sea.