I vividly remember one moment when she greeted me at the classroom doorway. She always had something nice to say to me, but that day was special. I don’t recall the words she said, but I can still remember the feeling, and smiling from ear to ear. She was probably capitalizing (active constructive responding) on something I said. I placed an anecdote about this moment in a book that Sherri Fisher, Dave Shearon, and I are writing.
This is an illustration of the peak-end rule, studied by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman. He claims that people tend to remember and judge past experiences based what they were like when they were at their peak, and how the experience ended. The peak experience can be either pleasant or unpleasant.
In January, my father and step-mother called to tell me that they had been introduced to Miss Robinson by a mutual friend. Miss R. had retired about 10 years ago after many years as a teacher and building principal. Hearing the last name “Yeager” jogged her memory and she asked if they had a son. Then it all came together for her. “Yes, I had John in third grade. He was a very quiet boy.” She asked my father to please remember her to me, and to also ask me what I remembered about her class.
Soon after, I called Miss Robinson and told her how important that moment in the doorway was to me, and how much I still value the memory after almost 46 years. Her strong, low pitched voice echoed with gratitude. At age 77, she hadn’t lost the spark in her voice. Then, something very interesting happened. The sensory experience of hearing her voice transported me back to third grade and a time she held me responsible for some “off task” behavior in class. She was tough at times, holding us accountable, but was always fair.
Another example of the peak-end rule came from an unpleasant memory in first grade. The boys and girls in my class had all been escorted to our respective lavatories. Not needing to “go” at that time, I went in and just washed my hands. Twenty minutes or so, after returning to the classroom, my brain and body signaled me that it was time to go. So, I raised my hand and asked my teacher for permission to go to the rest room. Her answer was an emphatic “NO! You already had your chance.” Well, I showed her! Unfortunately, the shame of a yellow puddle under my desk wasn’t a memory I would choose to keep.
So, here’s to you Miss Robinson, my third grade teacher. And here’s to you, my first grade teacher. As an educator for the past 33 years, I have never once refused a student’s plea to use the rest room. Thanks for the memories!
Kahneman, D. (1999). Objective Happiness. In Kahneman, D., Diener, E. and Schwarz, N. (eds.). Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. New York: Russel Sage. pp. 3-25.