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 Pedagogy, Philosophy, and Nonsense

     I had a knack for taking the kind of tests you get in school.  I could navigate through multiple choices, bs through an essay, and in high school I was one of those types who got A's on papers I wrote about books when I hadn't read past the first dozen or so pages.  Except when memory or a teacher played tricks, you knew when the test was coming and what the subject should be.  If all else failed, at least you had the questions clearly in front of you.  Sometimes I'm a bit slow to catch on, but after many years in the classroom as student and as teacher, I've finally figured out that when it comes to teaching, the universe is tougher than Mrs. Goff and trickier than Dr. Wills.

     The academic world gets labeled as an ivory tower, with a distinction between school and the "real world".  True, school may not be the real world, but the real world is a school, complete with playgrounds, major exams, and pop quizzes.  While I suspect that there's an order to the tests, that order seems to be a secret.  It's such a secret that you not only don't know when a test is coming, sometimes you don't even know that a test ever happened, much less how you did.  My doctoral exams lasted most of the day, but some of these tests last for years, and if you don't get a high enough score, you'll get the test again in another form.  If necessary, you'll even get that test again.  And again, again, again.  

     I spent about 15 years on one test, and I may still be taking it in some form.  As I sort out the patterns in the past and consider what they suggest for the future, I'm beginning to think that I'll always be taking this test, but maybe if I keep sorting, I'll find enough touchstones to make a new pattern  We can't make sense out of everything, but out of the mix and mist of our past, we can find moments with special substance.  Sometimes they add a delightful special touch, like the marshmallows bits in Lucky Charms, or they can be the lumps in oatmeal that catch in your throat and refuse to go down.

     Two of my lumps from way back were in the city park disguised as a slide and a silver-painted WWII gun with wheels taller than I was.  Both were toys as far as kids were concerned, and I had good times climbing both, but that was before my flipping flopped.  Like most kids, I had done plenty of flipping, intentional and unintentional.  I got my share of bruises and did my share of bleeding, then I went right back to the usual jumping, climbing, riding, falling, ever dependent on my sense of immortality.  The universe lets children be stupid, and I took full advantage of the opportunities.  But when I was about nine years old, some scrap of fear I've never identified slipped in and short-circuited my ability to complete a flip.

     That was back before safety was federally mandated and fun officially limited, back when playground slides were tall, metal, freestanding towers with a horizontal bar across the top.  Adults probably put the bar there for safety, something to hold onto so kids wouldn't fall off quite so often, but kids and safety aren't close companions.  We knew the bar was for jump starting the slide for more speed, and even better, we knew it was for flipping over before going down the slide.  It really wasn't even all that dangerous:  step up, lean over the bar, flip, plop onto the slide, and go.  It was no great trick, and I had performed it on the tallest slides in town, every slide in town, not counting back yard swing sets.  No more.

     The cannon offered much more variety than a mere slide or most other playground equipment adults could or would imagine.  The barrel tip was about 7 or 8 feet off the ground, perfect for people about 4 feet high.  We tossed gravel into the opening, always wondering why it never got full, climbed the tall tires, and shimmied up the barrel.  The big trick was going all the way to the end of the barrel, grabbing the opening, swinging down and dropping to the ground.  I had been to the edge, been there many times, and I had slid back again.

     I could climb to insane heights in trees where the limbs were too small to hold me without leaning and swaying, ride my bike with broken brakes, but the cannon flip eluded me.  I could ride with Dad driving around the blind curves and crumbling edges of Fayette Station road down one side of the the valley and up the other before they built the New River Gorge bridge, but riding "The Zipper" was right out.  Of course, I had no idea there was a real test involved. I didn't wonder why I was afraid or what I was really afraid of.  All I knew was that each time I faced a flip, I lost.

     My conscious mind didn't deal with it at all most of the time, but there was an edge missing to my efforts, a holding back that crept into more and more of my actions and my thinking.  For several years, I was shrinking from the inside out, becoming smaller inside as I got taller outside.  There were still times I went to the edge of the cannon or hung upside down from the bar.  I'm sure no one else noticed because no one teased me about it, but I noticed.  

     The problem was still with me as puberty, in its inevitable way, set in, and perhaps part of me realized that I couldn't cope with too many enemies at once.  Cutting through the park on my way home took me right past the cannon and the slide.  The moment changed.  I don't know if planets aligned, the moon was full, or someone somewhere rang a bell, but it was time. Maybe the fact that I was coming back from football practice and still had all my pads on (not the helmet) helped a little.

     I stopped my banana seat Schwinn at the foot of the ladder, climbed the steps, grabbed the bar, flipped, slid on down, got on my bike and went home for dinner.  It was one of life's simple moments, no thought, no summoning of courage or battling with demons, and no hesitation. It was there to do and I did it.  There was also no one watching, which didn't hurt. Of course, with no one watching and no one having noticed the problem, there was also no applause, but that wouldn't figure in for years.

     Still, I knew that something had happened.  A door opened and closed, and I had crossed a threshold, finally passed a test I didn't know I was taking, and I rode away without even thinking about that silver-painted gun from Dodge Brothers, sitting hardly 30 yards behind me.  Perhaps if I had thought of it I would have climbed to the top and flipped, but I since I hadn't realized there was a test, I certainly didn't realize that it was a multi-part test. Maybe I had nailed the answer on page one, but if you don't turn the page and find part two, you're still screwed.  A multi-part test, always a multi-part test.

     Despite that oversight and others, I, too, survived puberty, thinking I had won the war and closed the door.  According to the numbers, I was a smart kid, but I was still an adolescent, after all, and depth of insight wasn't my strong point.  I was busy working on my serve, my forehand, and my angst, more than enough to keep me occupied, or at least distracted.  I don't think I'd willingly go back to being a teenager, but they weren't bad years, uncertain and full of eternal anticipation, yes, but not bad.  I even managed a bit of small-town renown, but each action was still coming up a bit short, just short.  Each bit was too small to notice, but I was adding up a hefty debt.  Patient though the universe may be, sooner or later the note comes due.

     You never go long without a test, and I had managed to pass some tough moments with flair and precision, but I still hadn't learned that all the tests have more than one part, and there was still a part I was flubbing.  Eventually the big test came on that part, and I botched it, botched it big.


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 Pedagogy, Philosophy, and Nonsense Home 

Essays and Links

Autobiography Challenge       Considering Conclusions   and   Considering Introductions     Four Meanings of Life     Godot and the Great Pumpkin

CHOOSING A MAJOR: A Major is More Minor Than You Think  

Thoughts About Picking a Major

Quick Points   Quick Points About Writing  Reading Poetry and Cloud Watching

Revising Revision,     Reviving Experience     Reviving Symbolism

Using an Audience    What Makes a Story True    What's the Subject of a Class?     Why Write? Legos, Power, and Control     Writing and the Goldilocks Dilemma

Writing Yourself Into Being:  The Online Textbook to Come

CREATIVE NON-FICTION (Essays not directly related to education or writing)

The Blessing and the Blues     The Hair Connection

My Other Related Sites:

Showing Class: Writing by Current and Former Students

Poems, Essays, Drafts, and Scraps

Links to Other Sites