Monday, November 05, 2007

A Little Magic and The Teachable Moment

When I made the decision to leave teaching and work toward a degree in Pharmacy, I also made the decision to work as a waiter full time. There were various reasons for this. It's among the most flexible jobs when it comes to schedule. This is important in juggling school and spending time with Kim and the kids. The money is, in general good. It's something I'm good at. I can do it and still have the mental energy for school. And in the end, it's something I enjoy doing.

Today I worked a lunch shift at the restaurant that Lulu and Tenacious S told me about when they found out I was looking for a waitering job. The place has turned out to be a great place to work. The people who own it (two of the are friends of Lulu and TenS) are good at what they do and nice people. They understand that in a restaurant/pub, you're not just in the business of providing food and drink for people; you're there to provide a place and means for good times-- family events, celebrations, dates, or just a welcome lunch break.

Today, as the lunch rush started, a group of six was seated in my section. As I approached them them to tell about the lunch specials and get a drink order, one member of the group stopped me and said, "Hey, you work at Jury's, don't you?" I stopped, looked at him and said that I did, and ran through my mental rolodex, trying to place his face. He reminded me-- "Remember-- you asked my wife and I if we were celebrating something."

I remembered. He and his wife were in on a weeknight and had a bottle of wine and nice dinners-- one of them had steak. They also had dessert. People having a nice dinner like that on a weeknight is a signal that they're celebrating something. When I brought them the check, I asked them if they were celebrating something; they were, indeed. The husband had gotten a new job, one he was really happy to get. I told them that I thought they'd been celebrating something, and that the dessert was on the house.

It turned out that today was his first day on that job, and that the lunch was to welcome him to the company, obviously a small one. The boss, who was maybe 34 or 35, sprung for the lunch. I had a chuckle, realizing that I'd gotten to celebrate a happy event with this guy not just once, but twice, in two different restaurants.

As the afternoon went on, the other waiter was cut, and business dwindled down. A couple of more tables came in. One was a single guy. He started out by asking a lot of questions that I thought were pretty obvious. I was tired today, having worked last night and had class in the morning, and at first I was a little annoyed. As he asked questions, it dawned on me-- he was developmentally disabled. The old, crude term for this was "retarded." He was, in educator-speak, "high-functioning." He could obviously read, and he had a good vocabulary. He ordered a beer and after asking me to describe it, ordered our "pub lunch," a chicken breast with mash potatoes, gravy and green beans.

Later, as he finished his meal, I asked him if he needed anything else. He said he was done and just needed the check. I brought the check, which he examined for some time. I thought he might need some explanation and went over to him to check. He had a question: how much was the tip? I realized that he was looking for it on the check. I took a moment and explained that the tip was up to him. I explained that the tip should be 15 to 20 percent, based on how good you felt the about the service.

A little over fifteen years of teaching taught me to look at faces. And looking at his face, I could see he was puzzled. I tried explaining about moving over the decimal point and adding half. I could see I wasn't getting anywhere. Finally, I just told him "tip what you feel you should."

He explained to me that he was trying to get out and learn how to deal with life more. And I understood what a big step this was for him. I figured that he must live in some kind of assisted living faciility nearby, and that he wanted to get out and start living a normal life.

I picked up the check, telling him I'd be back with the change. He told me that it was all there. As I walked back to cash it out, I looked at it. For the $11.58 check, he'd handed me a ten, a single, eight pennies-- and two nickels. He hadn't given me enough money-- short by forty cents. I was going to just cash it out and not worry about the forty cents, when it dawned on me. He'd confused nickels and quarters.

In education, we have what we call "the teachable moment." It can be a lot of things. It can be a student asking a question that starts a great discussion. It can be a science or math activity that the students are really getting into, and you decide to change your lesson plans to go with it. It can be a group of students asking you to use a particular book for their group for "guided reading."

At that moment, I sensed a teachable moment. I went back to him and showed him the money he'd given me, and pointed to the two nickels, and asked if he'd thought they were quarters. He looked puzzled and said, "Aren't they?" I explained to him that quarters were silver-colored like that, but bigger. I told him that I'd give him a moment to figure it out.

I went back a moment later and saw that he had the proper amount together. There was also a dollar lying on the table. As I thanked him and took the check and money away, he said "Oh, sir, this is for you."

I gave a thought to thanking him and telling him not to worry about it. Then I realized what that dollar meant to him-- a normal life. I smiled, took the dollar and thanked him.


Dr. Monkey Von Monkerstein said...

Sweet story.

Andi said...

Fantabulous!! Great post, and a great thing that you did. Most people would've blown him off. Gold star for you.

red said...

It's not everyone who could recognize all that and make that kind of difference. Kudos to you, JY.

Tenacious S said...

Johnny, bless you. If everyone reacted like you did, my job would be so much easier. I almost cried when I read this. I have a few older higher functioning kids on my caseload right now and dealing with money and ordering is something we start working on when they are about 12. It takes a long time to really teach a skill like that. This story was so familiar to me. Thank you. You did a great thing.

Chris said...

Damn, JY. When you do posts like this you get me all misty. Thanks for sharing this and thanks for treating this man with grace and dignity.

Anonymous said...

This is the teacher is you coming out. Which is very good. That was nice that you did this for him.This story was very touching. Maybe god is trying to tell you something. Be a waiter and go back to teaching. You a re ally a good one and boy kids need teachers like you. Just a thought.

Splotchy said...

Nice story, man.

deadspot said...

I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but you are exactly the kind of person we need more of. When a situation comes up, you not only recognize the right thing to do, you do it, and you do it just because it's the right thing to do.

Thanks, man. Thanks for being a stand-up guy.

Skylers Dad said...

Oh man JY, I am sitting here crying for 2 reasons. The first is for the quality of guy you are and for your tremendous ability to convey this story to us.

The second is because, unfortunately, it is becoming more and more obvious to me that Skyler will never be able to get out on his own and do anything like that.

It hurts man... It really hurts.

cheer34 said...

I love stories with happy endings.

lulu said...

What a wonderful story. Thanks for sharing it.

'Bubbles' said...

There are bunches of things about blogs that I like... like this, for example. I'm so glad that there are people in the world like you, and that I get to find out - even if I don't get out much.

I know you didn't share this to be our hero for today, but you still are!

GETkristiLOVE said...

I love you Johnny Yen!

Valerie said...

sweetest post I've read in a long time. Very nice. Thanks for writing this.

Dale said...

You're an amazing human Johnny Yen.