Cool & Uncool

Do you have a steady boyfriend
Cause honey I've been watching you
I hear you're mad about Brubeck
I like your eyes, I like him too
He's an artist, a pioneer
We've got to have some music on the new frontier
—Donald Fagen, "New Frontier"


I've finished prepping dinner after bringing laundry upstairs for my wife to hang. On the speakers I'm playing the Dave Brubeck Quartet's Jazz Impressions Of Eurasia playing and there is nothing at all cool about any of this.

Back when I taught high school (all of four months ago), kids asked why I didn't wear a Gucci belt, Jordans, or whatever else they thought was cool. One kid said, "I don't know how you freaking stand being so uncool, man." (He didn't say "freaking" or "man," but the two words he used, while cool to those kids, are things I'm purging from my life).

I smiled. This was a pretty smart kid, the kind I liked and most of why I was still teaching. He smiled a little too, knowing I was about to try and teach him something. I said, "here's the best thing about getting old: you stop worrying about being cool." He nodded, then schooled me: "Yeah, you're old, but you were never cool, were you?" Touché.

I'm fifty-one and really like the classic Dave Brubeck Quartet: Desmond, Wright, Morello, and Brubeck improvising over whatever time signature no one else used. It's called cool jazz but not because the people still listening to it are cool. The cool folks are digging the newly unearthed Coltrane, the weirdly wondrous Ornette Coleman, neglected Jessica Williams, and every Miles Davis album except maybe Kind Of Blue. Look at my record collection and the largest section has Brubeck down each spine. So uncool.

That kid kind of understood. Most didn't, but he was cool in the ways that really matter. The ways I still want to be cool. He was a little bit open to things. He could be taught. He could learn. He could come to understand. He sure as hell wasn't going to listen to Brubeck and I bet wherever he is now, he's wearing a Gucci belt that isn't doing a damn thing to hold up his pants. He's cool that way too.

Me, I'm not even close. But I'm cool with that.

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 off.

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.

Weird Ending In The Schools

I'm at school and won't be able to say that for much longer. Tomorrow I'll be at a different school to grade the English Regents exam. The next day I might not make it to work — there's an end-of-the-year bug going around — and then I'll have my last day ever in this building, in this school system, possibly in this profession.

It's weird this ending.

I knew it wouldn't be all yahoo! I'm not great at endings. On New Year's Eve I get depressed about the end of the year instead of excited about the beginning of the new. Still, it's tough not to be happy about leaving this school and today I found more reasons to leave as I went through old documents and email.

I'm leaving very little trace behind. For years I've kept home life away from school. Most everything here stays put or has gone into the garbage. I didn't even need a box to get my stuff home. Today I went through the school Google Drive and Gmail. I downloaded a copy (Google Takeout is a good tool) then went through and deleted everything, taking a walk down memory lane which is a dark and dreary path here.

I found emails about my disciplinary meetings, an administrator's note telling me to keep my opinions to myself, a notice from our superintendent about "good work ethic" that busted the contract, and some of my responses to these things. It's all deleted now and I feel a bit lighter but saddened too.

This could and should be a good school, but for the ways in which it is managed. I'm not such a great teacher, but I've been good for this place and could have done more with only the slightest encouragement. Instead, I'm deleting my email, removing every document, and leaving behind very little of my expertise and experience.

This is why I'm glad to leave but in no mood to celebrate. This whole thing was eighteen years of failure, to one degree or another. What a shame. What a waste.

That said, I'm no longer following failure with more failure. I'm leaving and have every chance of making a difference now, of being happy in my work, of doing more than just trying to survive the year.

Still, it's weird, the end of all this.

I'll miss the windows in my classroom, the standing desk, the music playing in the background. I'll miss being here by myself, no kids, no colleagues, and no administrators. But I'll walk out into the wider world and the missing won't amount to much. I won't miss it very much at all.