By Mark Fleske
My dislike for Diet Mountain Dew verges on being distasteful. Seriously, it might be the second-worst drink that I can imagine - second only to anything with Kombucha in the title!
For years, I wouldn’t dare to drink any diet soda, but when the numbers on my scale climbed to an embarrassing height, my weighty conscience drove me to drinking (diet that is). I could give or take other diet sodas. Diet Coke was palatable. Coke Zero was agreeable. And I would even claim Diet Cherry Pepsi as desirable. But Diet Mt. Dew? Diet Mountain Dew is detestable.
This inordinate response likely stems from the fact that I love regular Mountain Dew so much. Mountain Dew is the drink of a generation for kids growing up in the ’80s and ’90s - my generation! As a kid, I have vivid memories of “Doing the Dew” and grabbing a cold can from my grandparents’ fully stocked refrigerator in their garage and finishing it in a few gulps. As a teenager, whoever was in charge of bringing supper (yes, we called the evening meal supper) to the harvest field would always have Mountain Dew as an option in the beat-up cooler in the trunk of the car or in the back of the pickup. I would make sure to grab a second can before getting back on the tractor to somehow sustain me for a few more hours of work before dark. Once I started driving to school, my favorite breakfast was a can of Mountain Dew and a Poptart as I navigated my Ford Ranger towards town. Compared to these vivid memories of my childhood and adolescence, Diet Mountain Dew feels (and tastes) like a watered-down version, a poor substitute for the real thing.
I had a similar feeling earlier this week when I got off of what felt like my 1,000th Zoom call of the day. For extraverts like me, who have built their lives around purposefully positioning ourselves in the lives of others, Zoom calls feel like a watered-down version of a conversation, a meeting, a relationship; it is a poor substitute for the real thing.
As a teacher, a coach, and a Young Life leader, I have built my career around engaging teenagers almost every hour of every day, in person. In person, I feel like I can make a difference in the lives of my students, players, and Young Life kids. I can celebrate their successes, even the minor ones; I can comfort their tears, even the ones they are fighting back; I can motivate their apathy, even when they really don’t want to; I can seek their hearts, even those who are always “fine”. While I can physically see their faces and utter the same phrases via Zoom, it’s not the same. It’s different.
My favorite twenty minutes of my work week is a Zoom call a student schedules for 9:30 am every Tuesday. One of my students reserves that same time each week moments after I post the link to my office hours sign up (Google)sheet on Sunday evening. We have conferenced via Zoom every Tuesday morning of this continuous learning-inspired break from school. Throughout all of our conversations, she has asked precisely zero questions about class or about school in general. She simply wants to talk, so we talk. We talk about her parents’ recent divorce, how her younger brother is bright but bored and resists doing his homework, her newly found love of baking and delivering baked goods to classmates and teachers, the new depression-fighting techniques she has learned from her therapist, and pretty much anything else she wants to talk about. She has a need to talk, and I have learned that I have a need to listen. Unlike most Zoom meetings where we simply check tasks off of a list, where I lecture to a screen full of disengaged faces, where updates are read and comments are posted, I leave my Tuesday morning meeting with a joy and a sense of purpose; I feel filled up instead of poured out.
The sad realization is that when I am allowed to teach, coach, and mentor teenagers in person, I experience similar, soul sustaining moments multiple times each day. During continuous learning, I am blessed to get it once a week at 9:30 am on Tuesdays.
Don’t get me wrong; I am eternally thankful for the veritable geniuses who are responsible for the vision, the technology, and the technical support that allows people like me to connect with my extended family, my peers, and my students face to face in a virtual world. These digital connections have not only exponentially aided in the logistics of my job but they will also help emotionally sustain me until this new reality fades away into old memories. My emptiness as I clicked “Leave Meeting” is not a condemnation of Zoom, Google Hangout, FaceTime, or any other technology as much as it is an awareness that my soul is fulfilled by personal contact, intimate relationships, and communing together.
The funny thing is that I get really excited when Zoom calls first start. Whether I am meeting one to one with a student or a Young Life kid or meeting with our school faculty or Cimarron Region Staff, a rush of endorphins kicks in. However, once the faces on my screen sign off, I’m left with a sadness, a realization of what I’m missing.
Today has been difficult for me. I didn’t sign up to be a virtual teacher, to merely instruct my content from my home to the homes of students. I signed up to touch lives, in person, to experience successes or failures, with kids, to place myself in the middle of their lives. And that is hard to do on a Zoom call. At first, it kind of feels like I’m getting what I signed up for, but when I sign off, I realized I am simply settling for a substitute.
I ordered a regular and ended up getting a diet.
About the Author
My name is Mark Fleske, and I have taught at Andover Central High School in Andover, KS since 2001. My wife, Elizabeth, and I have three daughters, one of which will be graduating this month. Many of my reflections revolve around my emotions about Madison, my senior daughter, and her classmates. I have also coached boys basketball and tennis during my tenure at Central and have worked part-time for a ministry called Young Life for the past decade.
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