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The most important meal of the day
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I’m not what most people would call a “morning person.” I’m not cheerful and talkative in the mornings. I like to sleep as late as I possibly can before waking up to get ready for the day. When I was in college and my friend, Elena, had to share my room for three months one summer, I made a rule about mornings: do not talk to me until after 11 a.m.

It may sound harsh, and I guess in retrospect it was, but I believed it was the best way to preserve our friendship and my sanity. Elena is very much a morning person, even on Saturdays and Sundays she’s up at 7 a.m. jogging or gardening or knitting a sweater for a baby that someone just had in her office. Her level of organization is impressive and a nice contrast to my often haphazard mode of operation.

Since I’ve held a few full-time jobs that required me to arrive at 8 a.m., I’ve been forced to become more of a morning-functioning person. It’s a good thing, I’m certain, and I’ve gotten used to it and enjoy it now, but there was a time when it was very hard for me to wake up and be productive.

The first job I had after I graduated with my bachelor’s was as a fourth-grade teacher. On occasion, I imagine I looked pretty sleepy and unenthused arriving to school at what felt like the crack of dawn to a room filled with 9-year-olds. Nine-year-olds, I’ve discovered, are never sleepy. They are either wide awake and filled with energy or they are asleep. I never actually saw any of my little angels asleep, but I’m told that is something they did on a daily basis. I’m still not sure I believe it.

There was a more senior and experienced third-grade teacher that would come by sometimes in the mornings and fuss at me. At least, at the time, I thought she was fussing at me. She always called me by my last name and never put “Miss” in front of it, which made me feel like we were in some military state, just the two of us, though, because she called the other teachers by their first names, but I was “Atkinson.” The grunt, the rookie.

This teacher would fuss at me about various things. She came by one day and said, “Well that’s a bright shirt,” which would seem like a harmless comment from most people, but she had such a disapproving look when she said it, I knew I’d messed up big time by wearing yellow. Other times, she would come by first thing and say, “You look tired. Haven’t had your coffee yet?” Again, another seemingly benign comment from anyone else, but she had this way of rolling her eyes when she said coffee that insinuated that I had weak moral fiber because I depended on a drink to wake me up.

I really began to feel that she didn’t like me at all and tried to avoid her when I could. I remember very well one day she came in to my room before the students got there and sat down in one of their little desks. “Atkinson,” she said sharply. I readied myself for an insult or some form of disparaging comment, but she asked a question that caught me off-guard. “Do you eat breakfast in the morning?” I answered quickly, honestly, “No, I hate breakfast.” I immediately regretted that answer and readied myself for a good scolding.

She shook her head, but didn’t say anything. I tried to make an excuse about not being hungry in the mornings and she cut me off. “No, that’s not a good excuse. You like to sleep ‘til the very last minute. That’s why.” I felt guilty, like my poor dietary choices had really let her down somehow.

She stood up and was exiting the room and turned back, “I was like that when I was young, too, but I have to tell you, eating breakfast will make you feel better in the mornings. That morning cup of coffee is likely to make your stomach hurt if you haven’t eaten.”

Something changed between us then, or maybe just something in me. I saw this teacher as not simply scolding me or disapproving of me. She’d been trying to help me. I mentioned it to another younger teacher who’d been there for a few years.

“All along,” I said, “I thought she hated me … but now I think I may have been wrong.” He smiled and said, “No she really likes you, actually. If she didn’t like you she wouldn’t talk to you at all.” That encouraged me to visit her classroom for chats in the afternoon and I learned all about her life and her family and discovered that the two of us had so much in common. Her militant attitude towards me came from her being married to a Citadel graduate and former Marine for 30-plus years. It became less abrasive and more endearing the better I got to know her.

Ever since that time, I’ve tried to eat breakfast in the mornings. Usually it’s just a piece of fruit or a hard-boiled egg, but I do notice a big difference in the way I feel if I don’t have that little something. I also sometimes think of her when I’m rushing in the morning because I slept too late. I hear her say, “You like to sleep ‘til the very last minute.”

She passed away last year, and I can only imagine how much her family must miss her because I miss her a great deal and I only had the pleasure of knowing her for two years.

Aside from teaching me the importance of breakfast, this wonderful lady taught me another valuable lesson. People show their appreciation and care for others in very different ways sometimes. Not everyone will praise you or share laughs with you, but they still could truly care about you and could have a profound effect on your life if you get to know them. Sometimes, you just have to meet people where they are, even if that is a completely different place than where you are. Sometimes, you just need to listen … and for goodness’ sake, eat some breakfast.