I got into the teaching profession on a fluke. While in graduate business school at USC, one of my professors asked for a volunteer to do a special assignment, as an alternative to writing an in-depth term paper. I immediately raised my hand, and was told that I would be teaching a college-level course in business management. Since my entire teaching experience was limited to being a teaching assistant to a few professors, I was taken aback at the daunting thought of teaching an entire class. My Professor then told me that the class starts in three hours and that I better get ready.
I nervously walked in and saw 24 young men (no there was not a singe female in the class at that time) who all stared at the newcomer teacher and the silence was deafening. I asked each student to stand up and tell me what they were studying and what they would do after graduation. One after the other they told me their major, and that they would all attempt to open a business and run it on their own. The light bulb lit up and I asked how many of them could balance a check book? Not a single one could, and so I told them to pull out their check books and taught them how to create their first Income and Expense Summary. They were elated.
That was the beginning of a love affair with teaching and motivating students that has continued for 105 continuous semesters over the past 35 years.
I want to share a story about one particular student who was bright, intuitive, asked tough questions, and engaged me in excellent discourse. One evening after class he asked if we could chat over a cup of coffee. He told me that he was extremely angry with me. When I inquired as to why, he said, "You are always bringing God, religion and morality into the classroom, and as an atheist I resent this."
"You are always bringing God, religion and morality into the classroom, and as an atheist I resent this."
I found the comment quite interesting, since in all my years of teaching, I had never heard this before. There is no doubt that my Jewish beliefs have had a tremendous impact on my thinking, and I often use teaching metaphors based on some particular Jewish learning. So I asked the student if he ever felt like I was trying to proselytize, or to somehow influence students to seek out the Jewish way of life. He said, "No, but I'm sick of hearing you try to push the 'gratitude attitude'."
I asked whether any relative, friend or teacher had ever influenced his life for the good. He quickly responded, "No. In fact my parents are responsible for a lot of my difficulties." He went on to describe a life of anger, resentment, alienation and sadness. He described himself as a master wall builder, surrounding himself with “protection” against those who would try to bring him down. “The only person I can rely on,” he said, “is me."
He told me that his parents had forced him to attend religious services at an early age, and that he hated it. As soon as he was old enough, he stopped going altogether and became an atheist. I inquired if there was any room to consider being agnostic, and the answer was a quick and angry, "No."
"Are you grateful for anything in your life, other than yourself?”
I then asked if he had a "good bed."
He stared at me quizzically, and with a wry smile he said, "A good bed? How would I know if I have a good bed?"
"Well, do you have a bad bed?"
The answer was the same. "How would I know if I have a bad bed?"
"If you have a bad bed, you probably wake up with some form of back pain."
He agreed that he had a good bed, since he did not experience any back pain from sleeping on it.
I then suggested something that made him stare back in total disbelief. "Tomorrow morning, I want you to get up, look at your bed and say, 'Thank for giving me a good night's rest'."
His response? "That is the most stupid, ridiculous thing I've ever heard, and I will not do it."
The following week, he again asked to see me after class, as he had something urgent to talk about. Right after class I went with him to the cafeteria and sat down, anxious to hear what he had to say.
"You’ve caused me a huge amount of trouble since our last conversation," he said. "Every morning I got up and consciously decided not to thank my bed for giving me a good night's rest.
"But then, on Sunday morning," he continued, "I got up and it was a beautiful, warm and sunny day. I was having a wonderful weekend, and I awakened happy and refreshed. My girlfriend was coming over, so I went into the kitchen and prepared a very nice breakfast for us both, and picked some flowers to put on the table.
"When she arrived, I was in my room making my bed. Just then you popped into my head again, and I found myself blurting out, 'Thank you for giving me a good night's rest'.
“My girlfriend heard this from the other room and asked who was I talking to. ‘Nobody,’ I replied, but she insisted on knowing whom I had been talking to. So I told her the whole story of our conversations about gratitude and the bed.
"I wish I was as lucky as that bed. I wish that you would express to me how grateful you are for our relationship."
“She looked at me with a deep intensity and said, ‘I wish I was as lucky as that bed. I wish that you would express to me how grateful you are for our relationship.’ And then she began to cry.
"I was dumbstruck, but soon found myself talking to her as I had never done before. I was so overcome with emotion that I found myself crying for the first time in a very long time.
“We talked all morning, all afternoon, and well into the evening. We told each other things that we’d never discussed before, all in total safety and openness. The more we talked, the more I began to feel myself opening up. I told her for the first time in three years how much I loved her, and how much I appreciate what she brings to my life.
"Later that day I decided to call my father, with whom I had not spoken in a long time. At first it was awkward for both of us, but after hearing me express how I truly felt about him, we were both soon sobbing and promising to make plans to meet with each other."
My student went on to tell me how he had started to see everything that happened to him as an opportunity to say thank you. He said that he had found joy in his life again.
I couldn’t resist the temptation. "So are you still an atheist?" I asked.
He smiled and said, "No. I have moved dramatically toward being agnostic. But don't push.”
It has been over five years since this incident, and not a month goes by without receiving an email from him, telling me about his successful photography business, his wife and two gorgeous children. His father passed away, but he healed that relationship in time for them to both have peace, love and closure. His children are attending Sunday school, and yes he is still a “card carrying agnostic.” He never fails to wish me well on the Jewish holidays, and when I recently underwent heart surgery, he said he was praying for me.
With the right attitude, I guess there’s hope for everybody.