The Nutcracker and the Gourd

Once I decided I was moving, I had to tell my students. Now, college students come into a class at the beginning of a semester and leave at the end. Teachers are paid to teach, students pay to learn, and ties are cut once the finals are in. What happens between the first day and the last is nothing more than business as usual.


You see, one semester is roughly three months. That is three months that these people have to look at me and I at them. I taught communications classes and also a course on academic success. My classes discussed things like perceptions, cultures, current events, discrimination, relationships, emotions, navigating college, and how to share ideas. These are fairly deep topics at times. It requires understanding, mutual understand. It means getting to know each other.

As I told them the first day each semester after they had to introduce themselves, “You just introduced yourself. So, now it is time for the tables to turn on me. You don’t know me, but here is your chance. Figure me out. I want you to see me as a person. Ask me anything.”

They were then free to ask anything they pleased. The most popular questions:

  • How tall are you?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Do you have kids?
  • Where did you go to school?

Students do not learn information if they do not understand the teacher and where they are coming from. I wanted them to see me as a person, see that I wasn’t exempt from questions, and hopefully open the lines of communication. I don’t think students are ever more intimidated about speaking than when they walk into a communications class…oddly enough.

After that first day, I always became “mean” and “intimidating.” I went over information and handed out assignments that I wanted in a particular way. I did not take late work. I counted off for small things like spelling. These things made me mean to them…at first.

After about the second or third assignment, something changed every semester. I’ve had students tell me that I was intimidating at the beginning and that they thought I was being mean for making them do an assignment and being too particular in how it was done.

Then, they say to me, and I have heard each and every piece of this from students, “But then I saw that you were doing it for a reason. You wanted us to succeed. You were trying to teach us a lesson. You were showing us something that you knew was important. I was afraid of your class, but it became my favorite and you became my favorite teacher. You learned our names and talked to us about things. At first, I thought you didn’t care, and that was why you were hard on us…but then I saw that you did everything because you care, not because you don’t. You inspired me. You showed me that I can succeed. You gave me confidence. Thank you, Ms. Emery.”

In the beginning, I was intimidating and mean, and I was perfectly fine with them calling me these things. At the end, they said “Thank you,” and I knew I had done my job. Students don’t learn if they do not feel like the teacher cares and is invested. I showed them by being “mean” in a way they eventually grew to understand.

You see, new faces came in at the beginning of each semester, but I said goodbye to friends at the end. They not only got to know me, but I got to know them. I didn’t get to know them as only “students.” I got to know them as individuals. I knew every one by name.

Students have become friends in my classes. I’ve watched students go from strangers on the first day to hugging each other goodbye on the last day. It’s always been sad when they go. I always told them at the end of a semester that it was bittersweet for me.

“I bet you are glad to see us go, Ms. Emery,” they joked.

I told them, “No, it is always bittersweet. I am always sad to see you go because I know I won’t see you anymore, at least not every day, but I am always so very glad to see you move on because that means you are moving beyond me. You are one step closer to your goals, and I am proud of you for that.” They knew by then that I meant every word.

Past semesters have never felt as final as this last one. Students who have gotten through my classes were always able to visit later on, and they did. They would pop their heads in and sometimes sit in on a class discussion. This semester was different, though. We went along with the usual routine. A new group came in, they thought I was mean and strict, and we got to know each other. This time I had to tell them I was leaving, though.

At the end, one class threw me a party to say goodbye, and they tried to convince me to stay. “Please stay, Ms. Emery. I won’t be able to visit you next semester if you are gone.”

Some cried. Several cried.

At my party, they got together and gave me a teacher nutcracker. One student from another class hand painted a gourd Christmas ornament for me and then left it and a note in my school mailbox.

I tried to remain professional and hold back tears…. but I cried in my car on the way home that day.

I miss my students. I hope they know that I wish them all well and that I keep their gifts in a safe place. Because of them, I have my new home’s first Christmas decorations, and I plan to tell everyone who sees them each Christmas exactly where the nutcracker and the gourd came from.

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