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.

Last Day In The Schools

Written Monday, June 24, 2019, my last day teaching school.

Here it is, my last day at school. In just a few hours I will no longer work here or have the place to complain about. I'm writing this on a school computers, in a private browsing window because I have scrubbed any trace of ever having been here. I worry that anything I leave behind can and will be used against me. I'm not taking chances.

I still haven't sent my resignation letter though I've been resigned about this place for nearly a decade. My concern is that management could find some way to do me harm. Paranoid? You bet I am. I'll be paranoid about upper management even after I'm gone. This school has left its scars.

People here are going about their work: entering grades, cleaning classrooms, planning for next year, and turning in laptops. I've done all of that except planning next year. I'm done.

It's good but already I feel us all moving on. They have to face another school year, a negative change in management, the probability that the job will become even worse. A couple days, one teacher here said breathlessly and with eyes wide, "it can't possibly be worse next year." Another teacher said that it will be better, but even she didn't sound convinced. I said nothing, having nothing good to say. Later the first teacher asked me, "do you think next year will be better or worse?" I said that it has been worse each of the eighteen years I've worked here. That trend is tough to deny.

What that teacher will do with my opinion is up to him. I have no more influence on this place.

Several times today I've thought of suggestions for next year: a beeper on the doors down the hall, use the vestibule of the men's room for storage. With each idea I have begun to suggest but realized it's no longer my place.

It's not my place to suggest things any more. Upper management never wanted my suggestions anyway. My suggestions here in the school were valued, but in a few hours this will no longer be my place. I'll have no classroom. Only some papers on the walls will remain to show that I was ever here. I'll be gone, gone, and gone.

Come September this place will go on without me. Thinking it will grind to a halt without me is folly and depends on the myth of indispensability. No one here is indispensable. Management seems bent on making us all disposable. They'll all get along without me for better or for worse. There's not much reason for me to think too much about it.

So long, school. It has been something. I'll probably need the next few years to figure out just what it was or maybe to let it all go. That process begins today.

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.

A Blog Outside The Schools

The new thing at school is to discover this blog. One kid found it and actually subscribed to my newsletter. Today, another kid came to me with a sly smile. I knew what was going on.

I've kept my blog semi-secret from students because what I do on my own time is my business. That cuts at least two ways. One, what I do out of school isn't determined by my job in the school. Two, my personal life isn't fodder for class. Teaching shouldn't be all about the teacher.

Still, I've known that if a lot of kids find the blog, upper management will find it too and will give me grief. Keeping it semi-secret helps keep things at least a little more quiet and calm.

The grinning kid said, "I had found something really interesting online." He showed me a post I had written about Chris Offutt's book My Father, The Pornographer. It was a teasing moment from the kid (who is likable), one meant to see if I would flinch.

I didn't.

"That book is incredible," I said because it really is. "I read it during our free-reading time in class." I told him how Offutt finds out the extent of his dead father's writing. I described Offutt trying to find his place in relation to his lost and unknown father. It's a book of difficult mystery and masterly prose. "Offutt," I told the class, "is a genius."

While telling this, I pulled up a file and printed copies of this excerpt from Offutt's earlier book No Heroes:

I walked my mother back to her job at a new building that had formerly housed a laundromat. She smiled at the door, resuming her role as a sixty-five-year-old employee in an olive skirt, the ubiquitous green of a redhead. Her hair was a different color now, but her taste in clothes was the same. She thanked me for lunch, straightened her skirt, lifted her chin, and gave me the smile of a receptionist seeing a person out. She nodded once and turned away. I watched the door close after her.

I realized that I knew very little about my mother's life, and that lunch had offered no insight. I didn't even know if she was happy. I hoped that my coming home would allow her to open herself to me. She never talked of her childhood and had told me nothing of her mother. I don't even know my grandmother's name. She died young.

When I was a child, some wild boys drove a hot rod along the dirt road on our hill. It was jacked up in the back with short pipes that produced a rhythmic roar. A large black swastika was painted on each door. I had never seen that symbol before. I thought the car was cool, the driver was cool, the loud music roaring was cool. I especially thought the swastika was cool. For some reason I decided to carve it into the lid of a wooden box on my mother's dresser. I was about ten years old. I used the sharp end of a diaper pen. When my father asked if I had done it, I said yes and told him about the car. He said the box had belonged to my grandmother. It was the only item my mother had from her. I never saw the box again. (112-113)

I read that to the class and we talked about how well it is written, a three-paragraph story that winds and builds like the dirt road along the hill on which he lived as a boy and returned to in My Father, The Pornographer. It was a good teaching and learning moment, perhaps even a moment of grace that began with a kid needling me, my outside-school blog, and discussing a book with the word pornographer in the title. It was a deft bit of teaching on my part, but I'm really glad that I'm quitting.

I love moments such as these. I love to teach. I love to help students learn. And I really love working with kids who push hard against the boundaries. I have learned so much and am glad to have worked with these kids, but I'm still relieved to quit because otherwise I'd worry what upper management might do when they found out I have a blog, that students read it, and that we talk about things in class with supposedly naughty words in them. I would worry about being taken out to the administrative woodshed. I'm glad I'm quitting because I don't have to be consumed by that dread.

The kids' new thing at school is to find my blog. My new thing is quitting school and setting out for new adventure. I'll write about it here on my blog which is open for all to see.