All of us, at times, as teachers or just well-meaning adults, have berated ourselves for not having the patience of a chorus of saints every moment of every day. I’m here to say: Give yourselves a break, gentle readers. This holiday season, let us reminisce together about the Snappiest, Edgiest, Most Hair-Trigger Teacher I ever met: my father.

Now wait a minute. I grant if you were to meet my 86-year-old Chinese father today, hobbling gingerly about on the beach in his unconventional underpants swimsuit, with his compassion-inducing bunions, you would find yourself charmed by this calm, cheerful man. He might even seem—if seen through a certain romantic Western lens—a kind of ancient Zen master.

Four decades ago, though, my father was the picture of the Hectoring Asian Parent. (I can say this because I am his daughter and I, too, hector.) But my Shanghai-born dad cajoled and harassed with the intensity of the first generation. He had immigrated in the 1950s to Southern California and science was his grail. He believed the glamorous aerospace industry—which had afforded us our sprawling suburban ranch-style house—was the only sensible career choice for Modern American Children.

Thus he believed his three children should get started on their scientific careers early—at age 6. Ah, how his mood would lift in the evenings, after dessert, as he pushed his wire-backed chair from the Formica dining room table. How light-footedly he would pad across the floor to fetch his Feynman Lectures books, Chinese flash cards, or, perhaps most ominously, the simple pencil and scratch paper for math practice. Oh, the gentle, almost singing tone with which he would call to us for our evening hours of study—the tone a cat might use to charm a mouse.

Every night, my father reigned over our kitchen classroom. He would begin with gentle praise, but within 60 seconds he would be loudly lamenting our hard-hearted, hard-headed refusal to love math and science as he did. Pointing to the yellow O’Keefe & Merritt stove clock, my father pressed, “It’s now 7:20. What time was it 37 minutes ago? Think quickly!”

My sister, the oldest, responded to our father’s relentless quiz questions in her own unique style. She would burst into tears and flee under the table.

My brother, on the other hand, retired to his bedroom, refusing our father’s instruction because he was already a math genius. His was a world of mysterious high achievement, stamp collecting, and stratospheric test results.

That left one remaining pupil—me.

As the youngest, my naive plan for many years was to become a happy math genius. That dream wobblingly continued until I was 17 and hit P and N junctions. What is a P and N junction? All I can recall, from that fateful evening alone with my dad as night’s inky blanket fell, is that, in a P and N junction…something is trying to leap. An electron, say. Or a positron. Across a magnetic field. Of some kind. There is leaping. Yes. I recall nodding pleasantly as my father beamed approvingly. Then he scrabbled his pencil triumphantly, made an abrupt, too-final dot and asked that most fateful question: “So—will the sign be positive or negative?”

One rule I’ve learned in science is that if there is a 50/50 chance of getting the right answer, I will always pick the wrong one. Which is exactly what I did that night, bringing on yet another dark wave of interrogation, resulting in the loss of my last remaining shreds of belief in my natural scientific “talent.”

Fast forward…as a stressed working parent myself now, I’m less judgmental of parental styles and those memories of intellectual cross-examination get milder as time passes. Today, my father is there for all of us and, older and mellower, his questions are more answerable: “How is your health?” “Are you keeping your back straight?”

Though I did end up going to Caltech and getting a BS in physics, I did not go into science. Oh, no. I went into the liberal arts, which, as I always quip, to a Chinese father, is like pole dancing. I do narrate a science show, though, which I think I do well because I understand how SCIENCE can be CONFUSING. (Just don’t ask me anything about P and N junctions.)

So cheer up, dear teachers. Take comfort during this Season of Giving. You, too, may mellow, and your students may survive, having learned perhaps more than you ever set out to teach.