Her Sundae Best

As a child, I was taught to use courteous terms such as “please” and “thank you.” But soon I happily discovered that “please” could be employed not only for courtesy but for enhanced begging: “Mom, I want some ice cream—Please!" If that failed, it became "PRETTY PLEEZE!!” And when all else failed, I brought out the biggest gun in my paltry arsenal of persuasion: “PRETTY PLEASE—WITH A CHERRY ON TOP!!!”

On that rare occasion when my request was granted, Mom would create my favorite ice cream concoction: a sundae with two scoops of vanilla , hot fudge, whipped cream, and—yep, there it was—a maraschino cherry on top. And many years later that treat would become inextricably linked to one of my best students.

As a teaching assistant at UCLA in the early 1970’s, I occasionally asked my freshmen students to write a personal essay about a vivid childhood memory. My most brilliant student wrote that her favorite dessert as a child had been an “ice cream sunday.” This was Ms. Hasan, a future Phi Beta Kappa from Bangladesh on a four-year scholarship. She had never even placed a comma askew, let alone misspelled a word.

I circled Ms. Hasan’s misspelled word with what was probably the first red mark that had ever defaced an assignment of hers since she began elementary school twelve years earlier in Dhaka.

She was first at my desk after I returned the themes, signing up to see me during my office hours later that week. Surely she didn’t want to discuss that one tiny spelling error. And I knew she wasn’t going to ask to rewrite the paper.

Some of my more naive fellow teaching assistants allowed students to rewrite past themes for a higher grade. They hadn’t counted on grade-grubbing undergraduates re-re-re-rewriting until they’d achieved their holy grail of an “A” atop the paper. I didn’t allow rewrites. To me, returning a poor essay to a student with permission for a redo had all the charm of returning a cadaver with a request to “perk it up a little.”

But Ms. Hasan came to my office for a different reason. She explained that her misspelling of “sundae” was due to her growing up in Bangladesh, whereas sundaes had been invented in the U.S. In Dhaka they were spelled like the day of the week. Ah, was she attempting to make an excuse for her mistake? 

Hardly. She then handed me a folder with a perfectly typed two-page essay inside. She said her misspelling had made her curious as to why we Americans named an ice cream treat for our Day of Rest—and then misspelled it.

This amazing young woman had spent time at our Powell Undergraduate Library researching the sundae. She found out that since ice cream sodas were made with carbonated water, and because soda was originally associated with alcohol (whiskey soda, rum and Coke), church fathers made sure that drugstores could not sell sodas on Sunday.

But a clever entrepreneur concocted a very similar treat without the carbonation so that it could be sold on Sunday. To advertise that fact, he named it a “Sunday.” Church fathers were horrified that a frivolous frappe would be named after God’s Day—and so, voila, the profaning name was immediately disguised as “Sundae.”

She handed me her short research paper on the subject, not for “extra credit” but out of her genuine extra enthusiasm for sharing such delightful knowledge with her teacher. And my heart melted like an ice cream cone in August when I saw her title. This was 1971, and the sleeper movie hit was a Glenda Jackson-Peter Firth film. I bet you just might remember it when I tell you her hilarious title for her labor of love: “Sundaes Bloody Sundaes.”

I was so impressed that I told her I just might hire her to help me research and collate the voluminous materials I was gathering for my doctoral dissertation.

She was so excited: “Oh, Mr. Engel! Could I, please?”

I replied, “Put a cherry on top of that request and we have a deal.”


Elliot was so gratified by all the responses he received from you last time, and those who did write him know that he loved answering each of you. He hopes you’ll grace his inbox again. And if you’ve ever taught, he’d be fascinated to hear about about your own “Ms. Hasan.”

Email Elliot at huffam@me.com or click here

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