This post begins, as so many seem to, with food. Well, to be more specific, a condiment. Namely, ketchup.
One weekend when I was in high school, I went over to a friend’s house to hang out. We ended up watching a movie called “The Mighty.” I don’t remember a lot about the movie itself, something about an unlikely friendship between two kids and their learning something very touching about life as a result. It doesn’t matter for these purposes, really. What is important to know is that the movie was actually pretty poignant (SPOILER ALERT…that is, if anybody was planning to go out and watch it after that stunning write-up) because one of the kids has what turns out to be a terminal disease. Now, my friend and I were both affected by this, but neither of us really showed it while we were watching the movie. I know both of us had our eyes well up with tears at a couple points, but neither of us actually cried. We just stuck it out and had this unspoken agreement not to break down in front of one another. So the movie ended, we sat there and allowed the awkward pall to settle in as it so often does after a tear-jerker movie’s over. What’s there to say, really?
Well, thankfully the uncomfortable silence was broken by my friend’s mom who informed us that dinner was ready if we wanted to come eat. Turkey burgers and broccoli, if I remember correctly. So we meandered over to the kitchen table and we started to cheer up, mostly because we weren’t sitting in a dimly-lit room curled up and trying to stifle the urge to bawl. Dinner was served, and we began to dig in. However, a turkey burger necessitates toppings, unquestionably. Since my friend’s mom wasn’t sure how long it would be before the movie was over, she’d gotten the ketchup out maybe 20 minutes earlier in anticipation of the fact that the nearly empty bottle would need to be upended to make all of its dwindling contents accessible.
Unfortunately I can’t pretend to be a scientist and explain why this happens, but ketchup in a plastic bottle creates some sort of frightening expansive gaseous environment when left out of the refrigerator for too long. I saw the bottle bulging slightly as I lifted and proceeded to open the top to squeeze some onto my burger, but paid no mind. Unwise choice, readers. Unwise choice. As I began to apply the slightest bit of pressure to the bottle, all tomato-puree hell broke loose. Suddenly my plate, the kitchen table and surrounding area looked like a murder scene from a low-budget movie. Apparently leaving ketchup out makes for an explosive device that will detonate at the slightest disturbance.
So, how did I react to this? Under normal circumstances I probably would have made some startled noise and then started to laugh. But these were not normal circumstances. I, like that poor ketchup bottle, had become a volatile entity capable of surprisingly big reactions to very minor situations. I began to cry.
My friend’s mom rushed over to console me, saying that it was okay, and that she had another bottle of ketchup and she was sure she could clean it all up. She thought I was actually distraught about the ketchup. In actuality, though, there couldn’t have been anything farther from the truth. I wasn’t upset because I’d lost the ketchup I hoped to enjoy; the cause and the reaction were totally unrelated. By stifling tears for 45 minutes, I’d opened myself up to getting upset about something that usually wouldn’t have made me blink an eye (unless I got ketchup in the eye).
After about 30 seconds, I pulled myself together and started to laugh, even if I was still dripping from the eyes a bit. I explained that I was fine, and I apologized for making a mess. All was right with the world. And I seem to remember that dinner was delicious. But that ketchup meltdown has stuck in my mind as a useful example of something that I’m all too prone to forget.
In day-to-day interactions, there are people who pass in and out of my path rapidly. I spend two minutes talking to a student’s parent, 30 minutes with a student, or 10 seconds passing another driver on the highway. In any and all of those situations, there’s an extremely high chance of one of those other people (perhaps I should even include myself in this) will be irritable, cranky, frustrated or just downright unpleasant. Especially the other driver, given that I do live in New Jersey after all, a place not known for its considerate and conscientious automotive habits. But more often than not, I’ll make a snap judgment and think some disparaging thought about the other person, unconsciously assuming that their behavior was simply for the sole purpose of ruining my day. Egocentric much? You bet.
But maybe they’re having a ketchup moment. Maybe this was part of a lengthy chain reaction set off by something two days ago that’s entirely unrelated. And when I remind myself of this, the irritation that was building up is gradually replaced by compassion, and I can interact pleasantly again instead of wishing there were a rocket I could use to shoot those people to the moon, never to be seen again.
I’ve had a handful of students for several years now; in most cases I feel like I’ve built a pretty good relationship with them and their families over the years. However, there was one case last year that I thought was going to be the end of my teaching career, either because it was going to suck the life out of me, or get me fired for kicking the student out of his lesson every single week. Or because I was going to be sent to prison for throwing a kid out the window. It was bad. Week after week, he came in, proceeded to grumble about how much he hated piano and didn’t want to be there, and then when I asked him to get started, he would say that he didn’t practice and had forgotten everything and couldn’t play his pieces. He lied all the time, too. It gets discouraging having a surly student constantly say how much he dislikes something about which you care deeply. This may sound like teenage behavior; the kid was nine, I think.
My boss and I had many conversations about how to deal with this. Different tactics, bribery, chats with the mom, different pacing in the lesson. You name it, we thought of it. We even discussed the best way to tell his mom to let him quit. Wednesdays from 3:30-4 became my least favorite part of the week. When the swine flu was going around I secretly hoped that this kid would get it just seriously enough that he’d have to miss a couple weeks of lessons. I didn’t want anything awful to happen to him; I just didn’t want to teach him since he obviously didn’t want to be taught, least of all by me.
Then two things happened. One, I had a chat with his mom and we discussed ways to motivate him and engage him in music. I don’t know what transpired at home that week, but the next week, he was a changed boy. He was almost pleasant, definitely cooperative, and had gone back to being the same reserved but very bright kid I had met a year ago. Secondly, though, I learned that his mom is not only a cancer survivor but has what I’ve come to understand are some not insignificant mental health issues. I can’t even begin to imagine what this kid’s early life has been like, with a mom constantly in and out of the hospital and a dad who’s no doubt frazzled but also (from my experience) pretty hard on his son. Aha, context! This student didn’t hate me! He just had no idea which end was up, and consequently tried to get out of things that made him feel like he was failing. Those endless weeks of stubbornness and anger were the result of a thousand ketchup bottles’-worth of pent-up confusion and emotion. Suddenly, I didn’t want to shove him inside the piano. I wanted to give him a hug and tell him that it was going to be alright.
The great part is, this kid is still my student and he’s started to really become self-motivated with his music and there have been a handful of genuine “I’m so proud of what I just accomplished” smiles this year. There are still bad days, and boy, does he get frustrated easily. But those are usually the weeks when someone in the office has told me that the student’s mom is back in the hospital. I understand then, and I try to make piano lessons a positive experience in what’s otherwise probably a pretty unstable existence.
I could go on for days with examples like that, though none quite as serious. But every time another driver cuts me off or a student refuses to cooperate, I think of that afternoon in high school and that sappy movie. And, of course, the ketchup. That bottle wasn’t sneakily plotting my emotional demise, just very near its own breaking point when I happened to cross its path. And I chuckle and take a deep breath and go on with my day.