Tide Pods and Jalapeños

So if some of you are not aware, there is a bizarre new trend going around among teens called “The Tide Pod Challenge.”  The challenge is to film yourself biting into and/or ingesting one of the pods containing concentrated Tide laundry detergent then post the video on the internet.  Thankfully, YouTube has inserted some common sense into the equation and banned any such videos which has started to somewhat subdue the movement.  Let’s all pause for a second and thank whatever deity we either ascribe or don’t ascribe to for that.

Now I would like to sit back with a sound “Harrumph!” and say that I would never have been stupid enough in my adolescent years to do anything so foolhardy.  However, I have clear memories of snorting half a packet of Crystal Light lemonade powder then through watery eyes and sneezing, looking at two of my buddies and saying, “Ok, your turn.”  So I can honestly say that there is a very sound possibility that I might have tried it had Tide Pods been around in my youth.

This brings me to my story of the day and the lesson that I take away from it.  It was the summer of 2015.  I was running the summer reading program with two or three other teachers from the school.  Our school’s location is walking distance to the West Side Market in Cleveland.  We decided to take our summer reading kids on a walking field trip there.  We were going to teach them math dealing with money in a real life situation, delayed gratification in not buying the first apple, orange, or watermelon that they saw but waiting for a better price later, etc.  All the kids brought $3 and we set out.

When we got into the heart of the market, we came to the Campbell’s Sweets Factory.  Their booth was filled with all sorts of sweet things.  They had many different popcorn varieties, unique candies, cookies, cupcakes,….and chocolate covered jalapeño peppers.  The jalapeños caught the eye of one of the young boys in the group and he immediately ran up to me asking if he could buy one.  I told him that they were $2.50 and if he bought one that he would probably not have enough money for anything else.  He insisted that he wanted one despite my advice to the contrary.  We went back and forth for about a minute.  Then finally I said, “How about this, we’ll go through the rest of the market. If, at the end, you haven’t seen anything you want more than that chocolate covered jalapeño, then I’ll bring you back here and you can get it.”  We spent the next hour or so walking through the market examining different vendors.  We passed butchers and bakers, seafood and soulfood, Hungarian and Honduran, and all sorts of other things for sale.  The entire time, he kept his three dollars pressed firmly into the palm of his hand.  He denied himself everything else to go back to get the chocolate covered jalapeño that he was so sure he wanted.

We all sat down to eat whatever we had bought in the market.  I watched him as he slowly nibbled some of the chocolate off the outside of the jalapeño.  He could feel a slight burn I could tell, but was not about go without truly trying it.  He paused from eating the chocolate, examined the pepper, then bit off about an inch and a half of the pepper and started chewing.  It took about ten seconds for the heat to register in his mouth and he ran over to the trash can and spit out the chewed jalapeño but the damage was already done.  He spent the next thirty minutes with watery eyes trying to rinse his mouth out (Yes, we gave him milk and bread.  I’m not a monster) before he finally got to the point that he didn’t feel his mouth was going to fall off into the Cuyahoga River.  At that point, he came up to me and said, “You were right Mr. Steidl, I didn’t want that.”

This brings me to the teaching and parenting lesson that I learned from this particular experience.  Sometimes, we simply have to allow children to learn through experiencing pain or through their own failures.  John Wayne taught this lesson in his movie Hondo.  In it, there is a boy named Johnny who really wants to pet Hondo’s dog Sam.  Johnny twice asks Hondo (Wayne) if he can pet Sam.  Both times Hondo tells him not to.  Finally, when Johnny asks a third time, Hondo replies, “I told you twice not to, but you do what you want to do.” When Johnny tries to pet Sam, the dog bites him.  Johnny’s mother is upset at Hondo and confronts him.  Hondo says in perfect John Wayne fashion, “People learn when they get bit.  The boy just learned.”

I think that most students have an innate desire to experience things for themselves.  As they mature and become more self-reliant, they want to know things because they did it, not just because someone told them so.  For some children, this starts very young.  My two sons, ages 3 and 2, are already this way.  When I’m making pancakes on the skillet, they want to touch it.  No matter how many times I tell them that it’s hot and it will burn them, at some point, they are going to try to touch it to experience it for themselves.  So the challenge then becomes, in both teaching and parenting, to allow children to experience pain, to “get bit” sometimes, in order to know things for sure and believe them while avoiding catastrophic injury.

I believe one of the ways to do this is to provide environments that allow students to safely experience risk.  It’s about allowing them to fail while providing support and guidance when they do.  When children do not have that environment, they are left with a sense of wondering and doubt.  At some point they will test things for themselves.  So, although it is scary and challenging, I truly believe it is crucial as both teachers and parents to embrace that challenge and give children freedom, in most cases, to experience things for themselves.

Steering into the Skid

“Steering into the skid” is a phrase that initially applied to driving but later has been used to apply to other situations and areas of life.  In a driving sense, “steering into the skid” means that if a car is sliding sideways, the driver should turn the wheel in the direction that the car is sliding.  This will cause the front and back end of the car to come back into alignment and bring the car under control again.  In other situations of life, it has come to mean that if there is something happening that seems out of your control, it’s a way better option to embrace it and work to turn it into a positive than to constantly fight against it.

I find this to be true in so many teaching and parenting situations.  There is, for example, the situation of my hairline.  Ten years ago, I was blessed with a long flowing maneof thick dark curls.  Some people said that I reminded them of a darker Heath Ledger…well, these days, it is much more probable that I will be likened to Jason Statham.  To call my hairline receding would be a compliment and the bald patch in the back is moving forward to meet it.  However, I have neither the money, nor the inclination to really do anything to prevent it.  I’ve just kind of decided to steer into the skid on it.  Here’s an example of how.  It was the first week of my job teaching here in Cleveland.  Part of what I do is Title One Reading Intervention.  So I was working with one kindergarten student learning his letters and letter sounds.  In the middle of the lesson, the boy just pauses and says, “Listen Mr. Steidl, I didn’t really wanna say anything but I just gotta.  I would go back to whatever barber did your lineup and I would fire him.  Cuz he messed you up bad brah.”

So at this point, I have a choice.  I can choose to be offended and get mad at the kid.  Or I can choose to laugh at the beauty, simplicity, and honesty that is a child’s mind and steer into the skid.  So I put my head down so he could see the top of my head and said, “No Dominique, I had him do that on purpose.  Look at my hairline.  It’s the shape of the letter M.  I knew we would be learning M today so I had him do me up like.”  He kind of cocked his head to the side wondering if I was serious or not.  Then he smiled really big and started nodded emphatically.  “Oh yeah! I see it! It’s an M like the sign at McDonald’s!”…skid corrected and back on track.

Another instance of this happened about three years ago after my wife and I had our first child.  Things got really busy and I stress ate a lot and didn’t run very much.  So I gained about fifteen pounds that summer.  When I got back to school, the students noticed it right away.  I was working in our fourth grade class with a group of our ELL students. (English Language Learners).  The class was working on writing opinion essays and being able to given reasons to support their opinion.  While the students were working on forming their opinions, I overheard a group of students talking about me.  They were debating about whether or not I was actually fat or I just looked fat now. (I’m still not sure what the exact difference is).

Again, I have a choice.  Again, I chose to steer into the skid.  I had them use their debate as the topic for their opinion essay.  They had to form and defend their opinion on whether I was fat or just looked fat and defend it using three different reasons.  They thought it was absolutely hilarious and were probably the most engaged in the writing assignment that I saw all year…skid corrected and back on track.

So both of those stories are simply goofy anecdotes dealing with how seriously or not seriously I take myself, but the overall concept remains true.  With many things, it is easier and more productive to embrace things we cannot change and spin positives out of it than it is to fight it.  In parenting, Shannon and I have used this outlook many times.  Most recently, we got our sons a drumset for Christmas.  They bang on everything anyways and as far as positive creative energy outlets, there are many worse things they could be doing.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if I’ve learned anything so far in life, it’s to not take myself too seriously and to try to find positives in situations I can’t change.  So keep steering into the skid everyone.