Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Mayonnaise jar & stuff

Jim Schaefer

A pleasant bit of sentimental nonsense that has been bouncing around the Internet involves a professor who tries to make a huge metaphysical point by filling a mayonnaise jar with golf balls, pebbles, sand, and two cups of coffee (or two bottles of beer, depending on the storyteller). My thanks to Ilka Flood (2011) for her version.
The moral of the story is supposedly that if you spend all your time and energy on the small stuff, you’ll never have room for the things that are important to you and that are critical to your well-being, such as spending time with your children and getting medical checkups.

But Norma Gonyea (2011) provided quite a heart-stopping point in an online version of Poets and Writers as the result of her experience with her teacher, who wanted to use the mayonnaise jar as a learning tool in response to that story. Norma remembers that her teacher, Miss Miller, whom she loved dearly in her kindergarten class, announced that the class was going to make a surprise Christmas present for the students’ mothers, so she asked her students to bring in a clean mayonnaise jar.
The only problem for Norma was that she was a good Italian girl with Italian parents who lived in an Italian neighborhood where nobody ate mayonnaise. Not one person. To them, and Norma, mayonnaise was white, jiggled, and even looked funny. Norma did ask her Aunt Vinnie, who lived upstairs, if she had a mayonnaise jar, but she didn’t. Norma wanted to ask Mrs. Kelly, the Irish woman who lived across the street, for a jar, but Norma was so young that she wasn’t allowed to cross the street on her own.
As the days progressed, the other students began bringing in their mayonnaise jars, which were put on the wide wooden shelf by the door, at the end of the cloakroom. Miss Miller wrote each person’s name on a piece of paper and taped it to her or his personal jar. Then, one day, Miss Miller said that some students had not brought in their jars and that all the jars had to be in by Friday, so the project could begin. Because she knew that she had been unable to bring in a jar, Norma panicked and fretted about what to do.
What could Miss Miller have done so that she did not cause Norma so much stress? What would you have done if you were Miss Miller? Would you have required all students to comply with this assignment? Would you have inquired of students like Norma who appeared to have trouble, what you could do to help? Would you have set this final deadline, knowing that this kind of ultimatum could cause anxiety in students, particularly good students like Norma? Would you have tried to learn more about the cultural practices, including cuisine, of your students before making the assignment?
Perhaps we should also keep this story in mind when we make our own assignments in writing and use more loving kindness than strict, harsh compliance as a standard of interaction with our students. Just remember that, as teachers, what we say and do in the classroom may never be forgotten, good or bad, for some people’s entire lifetimes. Do we want to be remembered in the way that Norma now remembers her beloved Miss Miller? I hope not.

Flood, I. (2011). The mayonnaise jar and coffee. Retrieved from
Gonyea, N. (2009, December 11). The mayonnaise jar. Retrieved from

1 comment:

Natalie said...

Another inspiring post--thanks Jim.