Learning Is Messy

It turns out that learning is messy. Go figure.

Sunday, having had in my possession since Christmas a doorbell/camera, I decided to install it. I'd put off doing so for, well, seven months because I'm afraid of electricity and figured I would need my brother's help to install it. I kept meaning to set up a time we could work on it together, but that time never seemed to come. Doing it alone meant attempting something I feared and would have to learn. No wonder I put it.

What possessed me Sunday, I'm not sure. I had finished mowing the lawn (not exactly brain surgery) and wondered what to do next. I stood outside the garage next to where I planned to mount the doorbell/camera. I was appropriately bored, dulled by the July heat, and figured I'd give it a shot. I had little idea how to install it, but what the hell.

I ran wires from a low-power switch that opens and closes the garage door. Two problems: it provided too little power for the camera and pushing the doorbell button opened or closed the garage door. Which really isn't ideal.

Okay, start again. This time I wired into another low-power line, thinking it was just power. It was a reasonable assumption, but wrong. The line runs to a second garage door switch upstairs. Once again, pushing the doorbell opened and closed the garage door. Oh, and it still lacked sufficient power for the camera. Damn it, damn it, and damn it.

You know what's tough about these learning experiences? By now I was far enough into it that I couldn't just stop. Part of that was pride. And then there were holes I had drilled and the bracket I had mounted. Those things would have mocked me. Still not quite sure what to do or if I could make the thing work, I drove to the hardware store, thinking about how learning sucks.

At the hardware store I bought a 24-volt transformer to hook into the house current at a junction box in the garage. It was a good plan with one problem: I really am scared of house current. At my funeral I'm sure someone will be shaking their head and reporting that I neglected to shut off the power at the box. Still, I had to go forward and see if I could get it done. I drove home thinking, learning really sucks.

Moments after I returned home, my brother arrived, God bless him. He understands electricity and so doesn't fear it. I wanted him to take the tools and do the work, but he knows better. He left the tools in my hands and talked me through. I (we) wired the transformer into the box and we (he) made sure it was connected safely. I (really me this time) wired the doorbell/camera to the transformer and went into the basement to flip the breaker.

"Well?" I yelled out to him.

"It's got the blue light it's supposed to," he said.

The rest was simplicity itself. I installed and configured the app. No fear there. We rang the thing and it lit up my phone. Hooray. All set. Except the chime at the top of the stairs remained silent. Learning totally sucks.

I thought I had wired it correctly, but obviously not. We tested the front doorbell, sending the dog into apoplexy. We tested the back doorbell. Same results for bell and dog. We tested the doorbell/camera at the garage. No sound. Damn it. But hey, no big deal. It rings our phones and the Google Home units we have. Good enough. My brother went on his way.

At bedtime, the back doorbell sounded. The dog went nuts. I was perplexed. No one had pushed the button. I looked things over but couldn't imagine what was going on so I went to sleep.

The next morning, just before six, I woke to a menacing buzz from the door chime. Crossed wires? Fire hazard? I felt a rising electrical worry. I went to the basement and tripped the breaker for the chime and two other breakers. Whoops. I flipped the wrong one back on, set off the doorbell and the dog, woke the family, and startled myself into a brief panic. I tripped the breaker again and went to see what I could do to reset the dog. She was having a fit. Whether it was about learning I don't know.

I was wondering why learning couldn't be just a little less messy. Maybe it can be for other people. Sometimes maybe it's neater even for me. But often enough it's a mess.

There's a lesson in this. Something about kids and teachers in schools. I've been out of teaching school for a few weeks and don't know if I'll ever go back, but I still think along school lines and probably will for a long time. I always used my own learning as the model for my teaching. Messy learning seems as good a model as anything neater.

After I got the dog and my own racing heart calmed down, having shut down the electricity to the chime, I stood wondering what it was all about.

Maybe it's about how ridiculous it is to think that kids learn whatever they're taught and that if they don't learn it right away it's the teacher's fault. I had directions for installing the doorbell and they were clear. It's just that things didn't go as they were drawn up because I didn't know enough. I had to make mistakes and learn from them.

Kids aren't allowed to do that very much at school any more. Neither are teachers, at least not where I used to teach. Mistakes still happen at that school, but making them guarantees that tenure will be denied and the teacher will have to move on. Step on a crack, break your mama's back. If installing the doorbell had been a school project I would have been fired three times over.

Sometimes learning is a messy process done all alone. And when good teachers come along sometimes they simply stand by, doing what appears to be nothing while I fumble around feeling foolish and making mistakes. The outsider, or the passing administrator, wonders what good the teacher is doing standing back, maybe nodding once or twice, but mostly just being there.

All learning has the potential to be messy and deliver shocks. That can hold a learner back, sometimes for seven months.

Who knows what gets us over that. Maybe the good teacher or necessity or boredom on a hot summer day. Maybe it's embarrassment or desperation. Whatever it takes. Then, when we break through the fear, we bungle things until the bungling teaches us what's what. We find an imperfect but working solution that signifies, more than anything else, how much there is left to learn.

I have plenty more thinking about learning and teaching, planning and doing, fearing and trying. If you want to talk any of that over, stop by the house and ring the bell. Let's see what happens. Could be almost anything.