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Father’s Day Series: Lessons I Learned in the Lab

This week National Road Magazine’s writers share in their own way what their fathers mean to them.  In this installment, Jennifer Stevens reminds us that our fathers play different roles to other people.  When we see them as others do, we grow to love them more.

For over 20 years, my dad was a middle school chemistry teacher…and since our town is so small, that meant he was my middle school chemistry teacher.  While the idea of calling my dad “Mr. Stevens” and having him privy to the many goings-on of seventh grade was not always ideal for my 12-year-old persona, I spent a year getting to know my dad as not only a dad, but also as a teacher.  Here are some things I learned from him in the chemistry lab:

If you want to be successful, you’ve got to put in the time and the work.

In addition to being my teacher, my dad was also my chauffeur each day to and from school.  Much to my chagrin, we got to school about an hour before it started and we regularly stayed for an hour or two after school.  And while I certainly could have used some more sleep each morning, I learned that if you want to be good at what you do, it’s not just going to happen.  You have to be dedicated and put in the effort to excel.  You have to show up early and stay late if that’s what it takes – a lesson that still sticks with me today.

The world doesn’t always fit into a little box.

I don’t know what other kids did after school while I was in the lab.  I assume they were watching awesome shows on cable while I was cleaning beakers, but every once in a while, my dad would let my brother and I do experiments in the lab.  We bent glass into cool shapes, we explored the dark room, and we conducted a few more experiments with the Bunsen burner that I’m guessing my mom would not be pleased to know about, so we’ll leave it at that.  The lab opened my world to consider possibilities beyond the routines of everyday life.

While I certainly could have used some more sleep each morning, I learned that if you want to be good at what you do, it’s not just going to happen.  You have to be dedicated and put in the effort to excel.  You have to show up early and stay late if that’s what it takes – a lesson that still sticks with me today.

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People will remember how you treated them.

On a fairly regular basis, people from Greencastle come up to me to talk to me about my dad’s class and their experiences with him.  Thankfully for me (and him), most of these are stories about how my dad positively affected them.  I’ve had people quote speeches that my dad gave them in his class or on the basketball court when he was coaching.  As an educator, I often think about these stories.  Many years after my dad taught these students, they still remembered what he said and how he treated them.  It’s a great reminder to be conscious of how I treat those around me.

You can try to control some things, but you can’t control everything.

I vividly recall an experiment that Dad assigned in the chemistry lab, in which students had to capture gas in a glass bottle and then hold the bottle to a flame.  This would create a loud pop and our grades were based on how loud the pop was.  The volume of the pop was reflective of how much gas had been captured in the bottle.  The only grades were A, C, or F.  Despite the fact that I had already practiced this particular lab, my pop was mediocre at best and I earned a C.  Let’s just say, I was not pleased with myself or with my dad.  I was primarily upset about feeling like I’d been embarrassed in front of the whole class and I knew that everyone was watching to see how I’d react since my dad was the teacher.  After giving him the cold shoulder for a while, my dad said, “I can’t just give you A’s because you’re my daughter.”  Fair enough.  My dad has always been great at reminding me that I need to roll with the punches.  That one mediocre science experiment was not going to change the course of my life, so I brushed myself off and made sure that I killed the next science experiment (which I also still vividly recall:  the results were sugar, salt, and plaster of Paris).

You are not defined by one thing.

While my dad had a wonderful career as an educator and impacted hundreds of students, he retired and moved on to other pursuits.  He was an entrepreneur and later went on to direct the senior citizens center.  He’s also a great dad to me and my brother, as well as a great son to my grandmother.  While it’s certainly easy to get wrapped up in an occupation or one certain identity, my dad reminds me that we all have multiple roles and several stories in our journeys.

You’ve taught me all of these lessons and many more, Dad.  Happy Father’s Day!

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About Jennifer Stevens

Jennifer Stevens is a Greencastle native and a DePauw University graduate, who later earned her PhD from Purdue.

Photo Credit: “Chemistry Lab” is a Public Domain photograph.

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