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Chemistry, Choosing Words and Cheesesteak

Rebecca Buell Emerson | May 20, 2020

I am an average cook at best. I mean, at the very best. Sure, there are a few things I can cook really well, but the remainder of the stuff pre-March 2020 was barely palatable, so when you averaged it out, it was, well, average. My very best kitchen skill is ordering carryout.

Since being home for COVID-19, the great Shelter-in-Place escapade of 2020, I’ve upped my cooking game purely out of boredom, need for creative outlet, and because I could only watch so much Tiger King before losing my will to live.

So, here’s the scene in my home right now:

My 18-year-old son is at the table taking his forced online Early College Academy chemistry final, and I can tell he’s really struggling. Formerly his favorite subject, online science for him was lacking pizzazz, interest, engagement, and passion. I mean, what is cooler to an 18-year-old man than “accidentally” blowing things up in a lab? Pretty much nothing. Yet, like millions of students nationwide, his high school and college classes were forced into remote instruction. I could tell walking by him at the dining room table, hand on his head, staring at the computer screen with a blank look, that this just was not going well. Not at all.

I’ve been a mom for two decades, an educator for nearly that long, and a student for many years before that. Wrapping all that experience into one thought, I knew this was not the time to give “well, Bud, you reap what you sow” or “wow, maybe you should rethink your online summer class” comments (although I was thinking both). Instead, I just asked, “How’s it going?” and when he expressed his inability to think clearly, I added “Have you had anything to eat yet?”

As a former Intro to College instructor, I knew that test taking involves a lot of different variables, and a core basic need is having fuel for your brain so it can think. After hearing his “no,” and his expressed desire for protein, I jumped into action. (After all, equipping him with healthy brain food is more ethical than me Googling his chemistry questions and handing him the answers.)

I went into the formerly-vacant, now-overused kitchen and whipped up a new recipe I’d read on my phone earlier this morning. A strange breakfast, for sure, but since neither my youngest son nor I dig typical morning food, I made my very first attempt at a food he loves to order out: Philly cheesesteak.

Chopping onions, peppers and mushrooms was an act of love. Grilling bread, making a plate, all acts of fueling a teenager’s dream of becoming a chemical engineer. Serving up two sandwiches, I faded into the background after he began eating to give him space and grace, silence to work and think.

Going back in the kitchen to get myself a cup of coffee, I took a bite of the newest kitchen creation, and – holy moly, friends – it was good. Like, really good. Like, I should move to Philly and open my own restaurant and become one of their native daughters-type good.

My first instinct beyond the shock and awe was to have loud, vocal celebrations of the yummy food I’d provided my family and ask them if they’d like another. As I walked through the dining room ready to celebrate, I saw my teen still frustratingly gazing at his chemistry final. I remembered empathy means foregoing the sandwich celebration and giving him the encouragement and silence he needs to keep going. His needs were more important than my own.

Empathy, understanding, grace…those things mean so much these days, much more than they did two months ago. It’s a balance, friends…Understanding that learning chemistry online is not what he, his fellow students nor his professor anticipated this semester. Empathy recognizing that it’s been hard. Logic that he probably hasn’t put in the same work he did the first half of the semester when it was in-person. Love in knowing that most students across the country have been thrown for a loop. And the grace to not say those things right now while he’s taking his final in the other room as I type.

Logic and emotion getting out of balance is normal when unusual situations throw us for a loop, and this year has been unusual to say the least. If you’d like tools you can use to keep an even keel when everything else is off-kilter, our webinar recording, “Leading at Home During Uncertain Times”, may be able to help. If you’re more into live events, register for May 28th’s “Logic and Emotion in Parenting” webinar here.

And, if you’ve got logic and emotion down pat, you may want to try the Philly cheesesteaks I made for my budding chemist this morning. They were pretty good, and I’d love to have you celebrate with me from your own quarantined kitchen.

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