The Hug That Defined My Teaching Career

“Can I give you a hug?” It was a simple question, really, spoken by a person who was trying to extend compassion to someone who was hurting. Yet, simply asking that question meant taking a huge risk, possibly putting a young career in jeopardy. It was 1996. I was barely 24 years old, just over a month into my second year as a teacher. I had gotten to school early that morning to prepare for my first hour science class. It was 7:15 am, which meant that I had roughly 35 minutes of peace and quiet before students were allowed in the building. At about 7:25 I heard some crying from the hallway just outside my classroom door. I discovered a girl standing in front of her open locker, sobbing uncontrollably. This girl was in my first hour class, and I asked her what was going on. She was barely able to communicate through sobs that some of the kids on the bus that morning had been making fun of her and said some pretty mean and hurtful things to her about her appearance. I had flashbacks to my own childhood, in which a lot of my classmates had made some pretty mean comments about my big ears and about that one time I had been mean to a classmate. I knew her pain all too well. I invited her to come into my classroom to get herself together before everyone else arrived. I handed her a box of tissues and kept on getting ready for the lab we were going to do that day in class. After a few minutes her sobs became more sighs, but she was still obviously hurting. As a young teacher I thought that I was ready and able to take on whatever challenges I would face in the classroom. I was wrong. There had been nothing in my own education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to prepare me for this particular moment.

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Not knowing what else to do, I sat on a chair near her and asked her if she wanted to talk about it. She didn’t. Yet, when I looked into her eyes I could see that she was barely keeping it together, the tears still welling up. I couldn’t just let this girl suffer like this. What was I supposed to do? In that moment a bunch of thoughts whizzed through my head. It was obvious that this girl needed a hug, some reassurance, some humanity. But, if I gave her a hug I could get fired for “inappropriate contact” with a student, right? Or maybe get hauled off to jail? Bye-bye, teaching career. Bye-bye wife and young daughter. Seriously, those thoughts were going through my mind at that moment. Instead, I looked at this girl as someone’s daughter who needed some help to get through her own teenage crisis. So, I pushed the negative thoughts aside and mustered as much courage as I could as I asked her, “Could I give you a hug?”. She nodded and we embraced. At that time my own daughter was only two so I had never known what it was like for a young adult to literally melt into your embrace. After what seemed like several minutes but was actually probably only 15-30 seconds she took a big breath and sat down again. Only, she looked at me with what appeared to be a slight smile, a marked change from moments before. She excused herself to the bathroom to wash off her face and returned a few minutes later all ready for the school day to begin.

I was glad that she was feeling so much better but still very nervous about what had just happened. Had I crossed some line by giving her a hug? I reassured myself that I had done nothing wrong by showing her some kindness and compassion in her time of need. I was actually feeling pretty good about it when I received a voice mail from her mother the next day. I nervously played the message from her and was greatly relieved when she thanked me for being so kind and understanding. It put my mind at ease that I had done the right thing. A few weeks later I met her parents in person at Parent-Teacher Conferences. The first thing that they brought up was this specific incident and thanked me again for my thoughtful actions. As we talked more I learned that their daughter’s Bat Mitzvah was coming up in a few weeks. Having been raised in a Christian home I had no idea of the amount of preparation by the child that goes into such an event. They graciously extended an invitation for my wife and I to attend the ceremony. It was an eye-opening opportunity for me to learn more about my students and another culture that I doubt would have happened if not for “the hug”.

Looking back on this incident from nearly 20 years ago I think that “the hug” was really a career-defining moment for me as a teacher. It showed me the importance of being real with my students. I had heard some professor during undergrad talk about the importance of developing rapport with students and he tossed out one of my favorite quotes

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. -Theodore Roosevelt

This particular experience perfectly illustrated his point for me. I had been told by some older, more veteran teachers, that I was being too “real” with my students. That they would only respect me if I kept them at arm’s length. Don’t ever let them really know you. Yet, that wasn’t me at all. One of the things that I loved about teaching was the relationships that I could build with my students over the course of the year. I truly wanted to make a difference in their lives and I felt that would only happen if I showed them my humanity; showed them that I cared.

Before writing this post I contacted the girl I wrote about above. Of course, she’s no longer a “girl” because, well, that was 1996. We talked on the phone about this incident and how it impacted her life. She agreed to let me use her first name but I sensed some hesitation so I’m not going name her. Interestingly enough, she is a teacher herself. She told me that there were three teachers, one in elementary school, one in middle school (guess who?!) and one in high school that really impacted her in a positive way. She lives in a major city on the East Coast and teaches third grade. She said that she, too, has discovered the importance and value of being real with her students, something that she learned way back in middle school. I have to admit that it made me a little nostalgic for my teaching career. I miss the relational aspect of it. But not enough to give up my current gig. (Not even close.)

Finally, while I believe that “the hug” was a defining moment in my teaching career, I know that it has also impacted my career as a Stay At Home Dad. I try to show my kids how much I care every single day. Sometimes it’s a hug, sometimes an encouraging word, sometimes just a safe place to let them vent. All I know is the importance of being real with them. I’ve worked hard to establish a trust and rapport with them so that they will feel comfortable with bringing big stuff to me for us to deal with. Together.

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Reach out and touch someone

I like to hug. There. I said it. I’m a giant and I like to hug. And that weirds a lot of people out. Even my own kids at times. I wasn’t always a huggy kind of a guy. I used to be more of a hearty handshake and maybe a man-hug. Make sure to lean at the waist and don’t linger. That could be uncomfortable. Personal bubble invasion issues. The only people I gave “real” hugs were my parents and my wife. That worked for me reasonably well until I became a father at age 22. After my baby was born I showered her with all kinds of affectionate hugs and kisses and life was good. My wife and I were blessed with two more daughters over the next seven years. During that time I quit my job teaching and became a full time stay at home dad. Our daughters were affectionately loved and cared for by us. We held hands while walking together to the park. My girls climbed into my lap to read stories. They started giving me “fall-over” hugs where they would get a running start and leap into my arms and we’d fall over and laugh and hug. By the time my son was born in 2004 my oldest daughter was nine and had already started to pull back ever so slightly from the hugs and hand holding. She was growing up. Determined to still be affectionate with her (and my other kids as they grew up) I made an effort to give them each a hug at bed time. They didn’t really like it. Unfortunately, I didn’t persist. It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized I wasn’t really having as much physical contact with my kids once they became 8-10 years old as I had when they were younger. As I thought about it some more I realized that was kind of the way it was with my own dad when I was a kid. My mom tended to be more affectionate and my dad would be more of the disciplinarian. I knew he loved me but he certainly wasn’t super huggy or physically affectionate. I didn’t really know what to do with my own kids, how to change our attitudes and perceptions about hugs and other physical affection without it being “awkward”.

Then my dad got sick. In early 2007, at age 66, my health-conscious and fit father, was diagnosed with pancreatitis and was hospitalized several times over the course of a couple of months. Turns out that first diagnosis was a little off, because at the end of March, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Weeks to live. Maybe a few months. We were all in shock. But what happened to me as a result of that awful experience was that I rediscovered my inner teddy bear.

As I said before, I’m kind of a giant. I’m 6’8″ tall. I have to duck to avoid hitting my head when I go through most doors. I’m a nice guy but (apparently) a little intimidating when others see me. But cancer didn’t care. My dad’s cancer and six week journey through hospice leading to his death that May six years ago transformed me in many ways. Perhaps the most significant was the power of human touch. As my friends learned of my father’s condition they often expressed their concern and support and asked what they could do to help. That was all very thoughtful and much appreciated. One friend, a neighborhood mom that I’ve known since our oldest daughters started school together, saw me at the grocery store and asked about my dad. Upon hearing my grim report, she simply walked over and gave me a hug. No words needed. Not sexual. Just one human comforting another. Beautiful. After my dad passed away there were many people who offered their condolences at his service. While the memories people shared were nice to hear, it was the physical touch – holding hands and hugging – that were the most comforting.

Recently I came across an article on http://www.goodmenproject.com that talked about how we, as men, are missing out on the benefits of gentle, platonic touch with other people. That struck such a chord with me and stirred up my memories that I just shared. And it caused me to examine my own life and how I parent my kids. Why is it that my 3 year old daughter excitedly holds my hand when we’re walking but her older sisters and brother wouldn’t be caught dead doing that? Is there something that I could do to change that? Why does one of my older kids ask me to give her a hug many nights before going to bed when another one literally almost punches me if I try to hug or kiss her? I don’t have the answers. Interestingly, though, my only son is nine. And he and I have a pretty close relationship. While he doesn’t hold my hand, he wants me to put him to bed every night and allows me to hug and kiss him (cheek only!) before sleep. But he won’t let my wife hug or kiss him.

One of the many things I love about the church my family attends is the real sense of community there. I noticed it from the first moment of the first day we walked in. In the ensuing 20 months since that first visit I’ve gotten to know a lot of the men who also call that their church home. While I’m not particularly close to a lot of the guys what’s really struck me is the level of the brotherly love at my church. And the hugs. Not the awkward hugs like I described in the first paragraph. Real hugs where you actually embrace the other person and hug. It’s amazing. Once in a while I’ll forget where I am and extend my hand to a guy only to have my arm practically yanked off as he pulls me into an embrace. And that was my buddy Rob who is maybe 5’6″ but with a huge heart. Going to church each week and getting hugged has really helped my emotional and spiritual well being. I’m forced to be real. About a month ago my buddy Kyle greeted me and I half-heartedly gave him a hug and pulled back. He looked at me and admonished me to “Do it like you mean it, bro!”. And gave me one of the biggest bear hugs imaginable. I guess I should mention that Kyle is a former offensive lineman and stands about 6’4″. He’s almost as big as the senior pastor (another former O-lineman) who also gives great hugs. Until becoming a part of this particular church community I had rarely experienced the brotherly love and support from others that comes from physical touch.

As a SAHD I have the unique opportunity to literally touch the lives of my children in both a figurative and literal sense. I want them to know the power of human touch in a positive way. I need to challenge myself to empower my kids to express their feelings and emotions through positive platonic touch. Follow AT&T’s advice from the 80s and “reach out and touch someone”.

No go find someone to hug.