When I worked at the local high school in my neighborhood, it was not uncommon to be stopped on my walks by parents seeking school advice.
I distinctly recall one dinner my wife and I had at a local restaurant where the family sitting next to us spent their entire dinner complaining about the job the administrators were doing at the local high school. I sat there as quiet as I could possibly be for the first thirty minutes, listening to everything these administrators were doing wrong. Sadly, I was one of the administrators they were talking about and in their defense, they weren't wrong about everything. Eventually, I did speak up and introduce myself, offer to answer any questions, and tell them how delightful their student was. The next fifteen minutes of silence from their table was both awkward and incredibly wonderful.
There was one time where a parent, who would go on to receive a restraining order from one of our teachers, discovered where I lived and showed up on a Saturday to ask for help with his twin sons. Yes, a Saturday. At my front door.
These were not the best of days.
Fast forward a few years and now I oddly miss it.
I commute approximately twenty five minutes to work each morning. Thus, it is quite rare that I see a Union Middle School family at my local Palo Alto hangouts. Yes, one student was outside my house once but they were just as awkwardly unexpected to see me as I was them. I've occasionally run into a student at the Oakland Zoo or perhaps Stanford Shopping Center. For the most part, however, I have a clear division between my work and home lives.
And yes, despite the horrible experiences from years past, I do miss occasionally seeing students and their families in a non-school setting.
The best part of seeing a student outside of school is the frozen response we educators get. The student will become statuesque, barely able to turn their head to their parent and speak the words, "mom... Mr. Feinberg is here... right there... buying six bananas... what is happening?"
They're absolutely adorable.
I use these moments to introduce myself, offer a few positive words about the student to their parent, say something silly to unfreeze the moment, and go on my way.
And sometimes... there are rare opportunities where we get to have a little fun with our students and be as silly as they are when we adults are not around. These moments turn into some of my favorite stories.
A week ago, I was grabbing a quick dinner at the hamburger place down the block from Union Middle. The assistant principal and I were to attend a Home and School Club meeting that night, and so after our meetings and before the next scheduled event, we had a scant forty five minutes to grab a bite and return to school.
While at dinner, two brothers, an 8th and a 6th grader, walked into the restaurant. I saw them ordering shakes and asked if they were getting me one too. They smiled back and said "of course we are! It will be ready and just a bit!"
He was smiling - obviously I knew he was kidding - and so I replied that I would wait for as long as it took. I thanked him profusely for buying me a milkshake. What a great kid!
The two students were both laughing. The 8th grader informed me that he had purchased me a cookies and cream shake and that I just had to wait. I was pretty excited to see how this was all going to play out.
The person working the milkshake counter soon called the student's name so I went up and got the shake. I sat down with the milkshake, again thanking the student profusely for the present. The student, somewhat confused why I had just picked up his shake order, calmly walked over, chuckling a bit, and said “uh, I got you a different shake; that one is mine.” “Oh,” I replied, “you must have got me a large shake instead! Thank you so much!”
The boys were sitting a few tables away so I kept checking in with them about my shake. The 8th grade student encouraged me to wait. He was sure it was coming up. When they were making a new shake, he said, “oh, that might be it!”
So at this point, knowing I had to leave for the night's Home and School Club meeting, I was either going to walk away or instead take the joke to the next level. I chose, as any middle school principal would, the next level and used my phone to order a shake online for me.
Now keep in mind that I didn't want a shake. The last thing I needed in the world at that point was a five dollar cookies and cream milkshake. Regardless, the milkshake was ordered as subtly as I could via my phone, slightly under the table and away from the students' prying eyes.
It was the best $5 I'd ever spent.
My milkshake was ready in just a few minutes and I went up to the counter to get it. I had a former student who just happened to be working at the restaurant that night to announce “milkshake for Mr. Feinberg from (student's name)” over the speaker. I collected the milkshake and then went over to the students and thanked them over and over again.
The look on the students' face was awesome. It was a mix of “what is going on here?” and “wait, I didn’t get you a milkshake” to “oh no, Mr. Feinberg just stole somebody’s shake!”
At this point, we did a selfie (because that's what we do in middle school!) and after many more thanks for the shake, I left with my milkshake. As I was leaving, I could seem them a bit stunned, half expecting someone to tackle me and reclaim the milkshake I had walked away with.
I wrote the students' parents that night, just sharing the story. Both parents wrote me back with wonderful and kind emails.They shared that their sons had called them immediately after I left with the "stolen" milkshake and again shared the story when they got home that night, laughing throughout the entire retelling.
And that's what I miss.