December 5, 2020

FTV: Shifting a Pair of Dimes

     Many years ago, Ontonagon Area Schools business teacher Diane Hardes and I were sent to a workshop held at the Holiday Inn in Marquette.  The day’s theme was “integrating computers into your school” and on the way home, we agreed that beyond the lunch we were served, it was a big waste of time (we will get back to this part a bit later).  The two gentlemen who did the program were what is known in the workshop business as ‘seagull presenters’:  people who “swoop in, drop their load, and then fly home.”  The ‘seagull presenters’ description was the opening salvo they used to describe themselves in a well honed routine that screamed, “We have done this presentation so many times, we don’t even need notes to tell us when to finish the other guy’s sentences.”  They broke the ice using a demonstration built around an old attention grabbing puzzle I employed for many years in my science classes.  As we all gathered around the front table, Workshop Leader #1 pointed to a six penny nail sticking out of a four inch square piece of 2 X 4 lumber sitting next to twelve other nails.  WL#1:  “If I asked you to balance these twelve nails on the one stuck in the board, do you think you could do it?”  When I realized he was pointing directly at me, I said, “Sure, I could do it.”  His face did not betray what he was thinking as he quickly pointed to several other people surrounding the table while repeating the same question.  After everyone else responded with a nervous ‘no’ (I had surprised him by saying ‘yes’ because he really wanted to hear ‘no’), he revealed the solution.  This demonstration was supposed to impress upon us that a seemingly impossible problem can have an elegant solution waiting to be discovered, but only if we were willing to think outside the box (Please note that I have made it a point to not share the solution…just in case you find yourself at a similar workshop.  I will give you a hint, however:  the key word here is ‘balance’).

    As we returned to our seats, WL #2 passed my table and said, “Thanks for not blowing our  grabber.”  When I explained how I used it as an opening day kicker for my own classes and workshops, he said, “Oh man, thanks again.”  The theme of this workshop was getting everyone in their home district excited about integrating computers into their curriculum.  WL #1 and #2 discussed strategies that could be used to speed up the process by getting our buildings computer ready.  Team work, they said, would be the key.  Stringing internet cables and organizing staff training with volunteer labor was the way to expedite the whole process.  The reason Diane and I thought this was a waste of time?  According to the ‘seagull guys’ timeline, the Ontonagon Area School District was already two years ahead of this schedule.  The things they said we would have to do in order to get up to speed had already been done in Ontonagon.  Staff volunteers had wired our Junior-Senior High building during the previous year and a good number of teachers were using internet connected computers in their classrooms.  We were on the verge of installing our first modern computer lab when Diane and I attended this conference.  The OASD staff was already exploring ways to integrate digital technology into our classrooms.

     There are two things that did leave a lasting impression from this road trip (three if you count the ‘seagull presenter’ thing).  First, part of their patter went something like this:  WL#1 said, “No one should be afraid of using computers in their classrooms.  Education is always about change and shifting paradigms.  This is a new paradigm…” at which point WL#2 held up two dimes and continued with, “…and if someone offered you two dimes, nobody would turn that down, would they?  Nobody in education will turn down your offer to help them ‘shifting a pair of dimes’ (as he made an exagerated motion to put the two dimes in his other pocket).”  

     The second thing I remember is how angry our short term superintendent was about the report I submitted when we got back.  The report explained how the conference really didn’t offer us much new information.  Diane and I were pleased to learn our district’s technology plan was already ahead of many other schools represented at this meeting.  When the super showed up at my classroom door (the report crumpled in his fist), he accused me of wasting the taxpayers dollars by not getting anything of value from the meeting.  He further claimed that, “This kind of information in the public’s hands will sink the upcoming millage.”  All I could think to say was, “The report says we are already ahead of most other schools and this workshop would have been better for us to attend two years ago.  At least the lunch was good.  If my report about this one meeting is enough to sink an entire millage election, then the pen is truly mightier than the sword.”  The super’s white eyebrows were now clearly outlined on his reddening face as he turned and stalked away.  I thought, “Well, this is one of those situations where my dad would have suggested I keep my witty comments to myself!”  The millage passed, the super left the area soon after, and the Ontonagon Area Schools continued ‘shifting paradigms’ by continually upgrading our digital educational assets over the next thirty years.  So much for the millage poisoning power of my report about a workshop where the main highlight was the lunch.  Apparently he had done the same act for poor Diane and as a newer member of the staff, it rattled her.  I assured her I had serious doubts it would get either of us fired.  “Besides,” I told her, “I wrote it and submitted it so you can just say, ‘Ken did it!’”

     If one is of a certain age, one can look back and see clearly how rapidly new technology changes the workplace as time passes.  As an example, let us consider the typewriter.  In the early 1960s, my dad’s work as a State Police detective kept him on the road quite a bit.  When he would go to the Post in South Marquette to catch up on paperwork or wash his car, my brother and I would often tag along.  It was during one of these trips that I was introduced to that magical instrument.  I was fascinated by the mechanical workings more than anything so there wasn’t much serious writing going on, just me playing around trying to understand how it all worked.  I began the summer after ninth grade hobbled by a planter’s wart on my heel.  When the doctor removed it, he said, “No sports, swimming, or other activities that require you to put pressure on your heel for at least a month, if not six weeks.”  My father was not about to let me sit around the house and mope so he suggested I take a six week typing course at the high school.  I protested, but he insisted it was just the kind of thing I needed to keep me busy and out of the house.  The Monday after my wart removal, I was on my bike heading two and a half blocks up Lincoln Avenue hill for my first typing class.  The instructor turned out to be my old eighth grade math teacher, Julius Tizianni.  We were stationed at manual Underwood typewriters very similar to the one we had at home.  Mr. T asked, “How many of you have a typewriter at home you can practice on?” and about half of us raised our hands.  “Good,” he said, “because I am going to cram a semester worth of typing skills into six weeks.  You might find it helpful to practice.”

     The kicker in my dad’s ‘suggestion’ that I take a summer typing course was his statement of an obvious fact:  “Your handwriting is so sloppy that unless you learn to type, you might never graduate.”  I did not think my penmanship was that bad (it still is), but he was right.  Over the years I have even said (somewhat tongue in cheek), “If I hadn’t learned to type in the summer of 1968, I might still be in high school.”  Once the class got rolling, I actually enjoyed doing the drills and picked up the nuances of the QWERTY keyboard fast enough that I didn’t need to do drills at home.  Interestingly enough, the fact that I was the only male in the class never really registered with me.  I can’t say I got the top score on the timed drills, but I did okay.  Just for fun, he let us try our hand on one of the new IBM Selectric machines (why ‘selectric’ and not just ‘electric’ I can’t say).  If one wasn’t careful how much pressure one exerted on the keys, a whole row of one letter would appear on the page.  

     From that summer on, I opted to write my rough drafts for papers on our trusty Underwood.  Being able to type almost as fast as I could form ideas was great.  Being able to read (or have others be able to read) my work enabled me to speed up the whole writing process.  The tricks of the trade Mr. T taught us about centering lines and how to type entries in small spaces on applications and forms has paid me back many times over.  I didn’t even mind filling out tax forms because it was just a matter of showing the form who was the boss!  Song lyrics and band contracts (with their carbon copies) flew out of this marvelous machine!  When I began typing mimeograph sheets for lessons I used in my own classroom, I often thought of and used a lot of the tricks I learned from Mr. T.

     The day I walked into the NMU Geography Department office and was offered a semester-long work-study job, Ceta the secretary asked if I knew how to type.  I assured her I had even taken a typing course back in the day.  She arched her eyebrow and simply said, “Well, we will see soon enough.”  My one semester job also coincided with my education methods class where we were expected to show our mastery of things like film projectors, copy machines, and other tools of the trade.  At some point in the semester, we had to report to the library across the academic mall and be tested.  If we didn’t get our punch card of skills filled out, we had to keep going back until we did.  In my work-study job, I ended up running every type of mimeograph or stenographic copier they had in the department – even an old fashioned ‘dictaphone’.  I was also dispatched to set up movie projectors, slide projectors, and film loop projectors for various instructors.  You need to be a certain age to remember some of these educational marvels, but suffice to say, the girl who tested me at the library claimed I was the first one she had tested that got them all right on the first try.  Maybe it was true, but with all the practice I had, it would have been pretty dismal if I hadn’t been able to demonstrate all of the tasks required.

     One afternoon, the Geography professor who taught my Methods of Teaching class came in with a folder full of handwritten papers and announced he needed them typed and copied right away.  When I said I would get right on it, he said, “I mean, I have to leave for an extension class I am teaching out of town and I need it typed and copied by five.”  No pressure.  I banged it out and copied it with minutes to spare.  The fun started the next day when he burst into the office red faced and angry:  “Do you know how many typos and mistakes there were on that test?”  All I could say was, “No because you didn’t give me enough time to actually proofread it.”  It was all too much for Ceta.  She came around her desk and pulled herself up to her full height (she was 5 foot two if she was an inch) and got into the professor’s face:  “You walked in here yesterday and expected to have a hundred question test typed AND copied in a couple of hours and YOU AREN’T HAPPY WITH THE MISTAKES?  The big MISTAKE, buster, was you waiting until the last minute and then complaining about what you got.  You GOT just what you ASKED FOR!”  He turned beet red and I think I saw a little steam coming out of Ceta’s ears.

      When Ceta got her dander up, she was a sight to behold.  After she backed the professor out the door and he made his escape, she turned around and re-entered the office.  Her thunderstorm expression melted into a big smile and she started to giggle:  “He won’t ever pull that nonsense again.  By the way, he said to tell you he is sorry for making a fuss.”  A few months later, Ceta and her husband left town for his new job in Iowa.  We had lunch at the University Center on her last day and had a good laugh at some of our office adventures.  The “do you know how many typos and mistakes” episode put us both in a fit of giggles, but I reminded Ceta that I had a couple of uncomfortable weeks wondering if there would be any payback.  “Oh, he wouldn’t have DARED!” she said before busting into another round of giggling.

     One thing I learned from these kinds of episodes is simply:  If you make a mistake, it is better to own up to it and do better next time.  Nobody likes to get yelled at.  With that said, I kind of liked getting chewed out for something that actually wasn’t my fault.  Why would someone enjoy getting a needless harangue?  When the dust settles, I get to explain why it wasn’t my fault that this or that happened.  It is always interesting to watch how the ‘yeller’ tries to backpedal to save face.  Whenever this has happened to me, in my mind, I can still see Ceta taking after that poor professor like an angry mother bear.  It also reminds me to put ‘anger’ at the end of a very long check list one should scroll down when problem solving.  It saves a lot of apologizing later on.  Like the old adage says, “Nothing ruins a good argument like some darn fool with facts,” or in cases like this, someone who did the best they could under the circumstances.  Learning that  ‘pair-of-dimes’ has prevented me from sticking my foot in my mouth many times over the years.


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