A Pi Day Candle for a Colleague

Today is Pi day. I’m not talking about pie as in a baked pastry dish of fruit. I’m also not talking about National Pie Day which falls on January 23rd. I’m talking about the mathematical term pi, which is a numerical constant (3.14) that’s defined in Euclidean geometry as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. March 14th is a colleague’s birthday. The only reason I remember it is because she told me that she was born on pi day when she first introduced herself five years ago.

One of the challenges facing me as someone who is on the autistic spectrum is that I have issues with transitioning back to work after any prolonged time away from campus. The start of each new school year is particularly challenging because after two and a half months of summer vacation, I am reluctant to resume interacting with students, faculty, and staff. Prior to the Covid pandemic, I was so stressed out over the thought of having to return to work that there were times when I have called in “sick” just to avoid having to attend these all day faculty meetings in the cafeteria, with the combined faculty of two area schools.

These meetings are always held one week before the new school year resumes for the students. Since my principal is a great believer in hosting interactive sessions, she enjoys “mixing things up” by intermittently having us get up and move to different locations. She thinks of these as fun “mixer” activities. I think of them as living tortuous sessions that press a lot of my autistic triggers.

The last time I attended one of the return to work sessions was three years ago. I brought my laptop to distract me along with headphones so that I could listen to music just in case the sound of dozens of conversations got too intense. I took the headphones off when the principal discussed curriculum, rule changes, and expectations but otherwise put on the headphones during breaks.

It wasn’t long before the principal started one of her activities. She stood at her podium and announced the following. “IF YOU HAD A CHOICE BETWEEN A SLICE OF PECAN PIE, A CHOCOLATE ICE CREAM SUNDAE, OR A BOWL OF FRESH FRUIT, WHICH WOULD YOU CHOOSE? EVERYONE WHO LIKES PECAN PIE SHOULD STAND IN THE BACK OF THE CAFETARIA. EVERYONE WHO LIKES ICE CREAM SUNDAES SHOULD STAND IN THE FRONT. EVERYONE WHO WOULD PREFER FRESH FRUIT SHOULD STAND IN THE CENTER OF THE ROOM! THE LARGEST GROUP WILL GET A TREAT!”

As bad as it was having to interact with other teachers while enduring the background din of dozens of on-going conversations, I especially disliked these activities. In contrast, some of my colleagues really got into these events. The already loud noise levels were now punctuated with laughter and annoyingly high pitched shrieks of excitement. There was also a lot of movement with people hurrying to different parts of the room.

“CHOCOLATE RULES!” shouted one teacher.

“PECAN PIE IS BETTER THAN CHOCOLATE!” called someone else.

“IN YOUR DREAMS! FRESH FRUIT IS MORE HEALTHY AND HAS LESS CALORIES!” argued a third.

As teachers scurried around the cafeteria, I remained seated with my arms folded over my chest scowling at anyone who even looked at me.

That is when I met Ms. Brown (not her real name).

“Are you okay?” asked a voice. “You seem agitated.”

“I’m autistic,” I muttered. “Being agitated is my default emotional state.”

“You can’t just sit here,” she observed.

“Watch me.”

“Don’t focus on the noise or the movement or the fact that some people are taking this silly activity way too seriously. Focus on me. My name is Amelia Brown (again not her real name). I am the new art teacher.” She paused and smiled at me while looking past me to avoid making direct eye contact. “This is when you tell me what your name is.”

“I’m David.”

“And do you have a last name David?”

“Chin. My last name is Chin.”

I waited for her to make fun of my name by saying “Chinny chin chin,” which is a bad joke that I’ve only heard a ten thousand times over the past six decades.

Ms. Brown passed on the joke and smiled. “Chef Chin. I should have guessed. You must be the Culinary Arts teacher.”

I looked down at my uniform. I was wearing a white culinary jacket with black trousers. Since I wasn’t in the kitchen, I wasn’t wearing my toque. “I suppose my uniform gave me away?”

“That and the fact that your name is embroidered on your jacket.” She smiled again. “I heard that you’re a FANTASTIC chef and that you’re the best Culinary Arts instructor this school has ever had. Do you know how to make pies? I LOVE pies. I think it’s because I was born on pi day.”

“So you were born on January 23rd?”

“What makes you say that?”

“January 23rd is National Pie Day and you said you were born on pie day.”

Her smile grew wider. “I WAS born on pi day which is March 14th. Get it? March is the third month and I was born on the 14th. 3.14 is Pi day.”

Understanding clicked. The number 3.14 is a mathematical constant that’s defined in Euclidean geometry as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Ms. Brown was born on pi day and not pie day. I liked the pun but didn’t smile because it wasn’t that punny. I was also feeling stressed out.

“So do you know how to make a good pie crust?”

Since I regard the production of pie dough as being incredibly simplistic, I sniffed over the fact that she had asked me such a question. “I teach my beginning students how to make a pie crust using a recipe for pâte brisée. The use of butter makes the crust much more flaky and flavorful.”

I suddenly noticed that in focusing on Ms. Brown and talking about my special interest (which is all things culinary), I had somehow gotten out of my seat and followed her to the group advocating for pecan pie.

This turned out to be a happy coincidence because I love pecan pie. Pictured below is a pecan tart candle that I made several months ago as a production test design that I decided to not implement due to the excessive amount of candle gel that was needed. Using the amount of gel that was needed to produce the candle below would have voided my insurance liability coverage.

pecan tart candle

“HI CHEF! NICE TO SEE YOU!” boomed Mr. Gorbanchinsky (not his real name). The man with a bushy white beard was looking directly at me. “Did you have a nice summer?”

I grunted. The force of his gaze caused me to flinch away. I studied the floor tiles beneath my feet.

Ms. Brown smiled and looked at Mr. G. “Chef says he had a wonderful summer. Thank you for having asked. He’s feeling a bit overwhelmed over having to interact with anyone. The bright lights in this room, the constant movement, and the noise are really not helping his overall emotional state.”

I stared at Ms. Brown. “Are you an autistic whisperer?” I asked. How had she known what I was thinking?

Ms. Brown and Mr. G burst into laughter. I am uncertain as to why they were amused. For some reason this seems to happen to me a lot. Some of my colleagues even think that I have a sense of humor. I am quite sure that they are mistaken.

“I understand that you’re agitated,” observed the art teacher who continuing looking past me instead of trying to force eye contact. “I know that you’re agitated because one of your hands is twitching. Are you trying to suppress your urge to flap?”

Since I didn’t want to discuss my personal mannerisms with someone whom I had just met, I shoved my hands into the pockets of my black chef’s trousers and changed the subject.

Five years have passed since I met Ms. Brown. I will always remember the kindness she showed during a time when I was suffering from extreme stress. Since Ms. Brown’s favorite pie is sweet potato, I made her this sweet potato candle as a birthday gift.

sweet potato pie candle

Since I am out of the pillar wax that I normally use to make my food novelty candles, I melted a sweet potato candle to repurpose as a pie candle. In melting the old candle to make a new one it occurred to me that this melted wax was a metaphor for my life.

potato candles – the sweet potato candle is pictured bottom left

I was originally educated and trained an an elementary teacher and worked for 17 years in the profession. During this time I earned a Master’s degree in Curriculum and Instruction. I also spent half of my elementary teaching career working abroad at international American schools in Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.

Picture of yours truly from Saudi Arabia – NOTE: We didn’t normally dress like this. I wore Bedouin clothing to celebrate the end of our 3rd grade Arabic studies unit. On this occasion we had an Arab lunch seated in a Bedouin tent.

After returning stateside in ’99, I found that I couldn’t readjust to the teach to the test mentality in our public schools. I opted out, resigned, and went to culinary school to fulfill my lifelong dream of becoming a chef. My father said that I was having a mid-life crisis and urged me to go back into teaching.

The restaurant profession was hard. Not only was the pay much less than what I had made as a public school teacher but the hours were ridiculously long. I typically worked a 60-70 hour week for which I received no overtime since I was under contract. I worked nights, weekends, and holidays.

Whereas I had once had four days off for Thanksgiving, two weeks for Christmas, a week for Spring Break, and two and a half months for summer vacation, I now got one lousy week off per year. During my first vacation, the restaurant I worked at was short staffed and I got called back to work. The general manager gave me a lousy $150 in compensation which didn’t come close to offsetting the 60 hour work week.

I particularly hated working swing shift. Since the restaurant closed at 9 PM, I had to cash out the register drawers and supervise the staff cleaning the kitchen. If I was lucky, I’d be home at 11 PM only to have to wake up at 5 AM so I could be at work to open the restaurant an hour later.

I finally gave in to my father’s wishes and returned to teaching in 2007. Instead of teaching elementary school I used my culinary degree and my work experience to leverage a teaching certificate for Culinary Arts. I have been a high school chef instructor ever since.

In combining my teaching experience with my culinary training and industry experience, I have remade myself just as I remade the sweet potato candle which was repurposed as a sweet potato pie candle for Ms. Brown in celebration of pi day.

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