I was skimming through the newspaper when an article on mental health caught my attention. It was still on my mind when I walked into my classroom.
“Good morning, class! Today, we are going to do an exercise.”
On the blackboard, I wrote the word, ‘Philautia’ and underlined it. I handed out paper plates and markers to the curious teenagers.
“Pin this plate onto your friend’s back. Each of you needs to go around and write a word to describe that person. There are twenty of you here. At the end of the exercise, there should be nineteen descriptors on each plate. “
The class was elated that they got to skip grammar and have fun instead. For the next few minutes, it was utter mayhem, but soon, each student returned to their seat having completed the task and eager to see what had been written for them.
“Take off your plate and keep it on your desk. Who wants to read aloud what has been written for them?”
“Funny. Jovial. Friendly!” the class clown, Stephen, announced.
“Trustworthy. Loyal. Intelligent!” another student volunteered.
“Tia, are you alright?” I asked the girl with the braces and thick glasses in the front row.
“Someone wrote ‘pretty’ for me. No one has ever called me that before.”
She burst into tears.
“Class, in front of you is a plate, served, not with food, but with self-love. This is who you are. You are beautiful, kind, and wise. There will be days when you feel otherwise. Look at your plate and remind yourself that you deserve all the happiness in this world. Love begins with you.”
The class looked at me wide-eyed, as I beamed back at them.
I’m a teacher and it’s my job to make things better.
Thirty Years later
I sat by the window of my senior-citizens’ home admiring the setting sun. Of late, my memory seemed to be diminishing. Some days I couldn’t even remember who I was.
“Madam, you have visitors!” my nurse announced.
She wheeled me into the common room. It was decorated with streamers and balloons. Gathered there, were a group of people in their forties.
“Surprise!” they yelled.
They looked familiar; only I wasn’t sure where I had seen them before.
Why were they holding faded paper plates?
“I’m Tia. I’m a supermodel. Thank you for teaching me to love myself.”
“I’m Stephen. I lost my banking job. I looked at my plate, remembered I was a funny guy, reinvented myself, and today I’m a successful stand-up comedian.”
“I’m Ray. I was diagnosed three years ago. My plate reminded me that I was a fighter, and today I’m in remission.”
Everyone had a tale to tell. Such beautiful stories that had me tearing up.
When they were done, they presented a bronze plaque to me. It had beautiful words etched on it; they said it described me.
Passionate. Caring. Dedicated. Lifesaver.
And then I remembered.
I’m a teacher, and I make everything better.
A few years ago, I attended a happiness camp organized by the Art of Living Foundation, where we did this exercise with the paper plates. I’m the proud owner of a paper plate with lovely words written on it. It is pinned to my study wall, a reminder to love myself.
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