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Doing What You Can Do

One of the most frustrating things about teaching is seeing students that are perfectly capable of doing an assignment just sitting there. I am not talking about students that are phone addicts, non-stop talkers, or sleepers. The kids I’m referring to are ones who do nothing more than occupy space.

Somehow when I think about this I am reminded of a scene in a kid’s movie, The Neverending Story. In this scene a character known as Rockbiter discusses the nothingness:

Rockbiter: Near my home there used to be a beautiful lake, but then it was gone.

Tiny: Did the lake dry up?

Rockbiter: No, it just wasn’t there anymore. Nothing was there anymore. Not even a dried-up lake.

Tiny: A hole?

Rockbiter: No, a hole would be something. Nah, it was nothing. And it got bigger and bigger.  First there was no lake anymore and then finally, no rocks.

The students in my class that actively engaged in off-task behavior are doing something. Those students are in some sense using skills that may well prove to be valuable in their ultimate careers. Some notable high-tech entrepreneurs got their start playing around with gadgets.

People who have the gift of gab may become great teachers, sales representatives, or counselors, and economics class sleepers might be preparing themselves for a lucrative career as sleep study participants.

The ones who really do nothing are a constant concern. What does the future hold for them?

At times in our history we have had large numbers of men and women doing nothing because there were no jobs available. In his book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, writer Jean Shepherd (of A Christmas Story fame) describes one of his neighbors, Ludlow Kissel:

Mr. Kissel had found his true medium in the Depression itself. Kissel worked in Idleness the way other artists worked in clay or marble. God only knows what would have happened to him were it not for the Depression. He was a true child of his time. 

People like Kissel were a true rarity at the time, but they seem to be increasingly common today.

When I was growing up my father was an electrician. I remember times that his employer no contacts which meant that there was no reason for him to go into his job. No work meant no pay, and my father, a child of the Great Depression, wasn’t going to sit idle.

I clearly remember my dad getting dressed for work and leaving the house despite having no job to go to that day. This seemed very odd to me but was made clear when he returned at the end of the day with grocery sacks filled with empty Coke bottles caked in dry mud.

An explanation for my younger readers:

There was a time when soft drink bottles were not disposable. The bottles were made of thicker glass and designed to be returned to the bottler, sterilized, and reused. When you bought Cokes, you paid for the drinks plus put a deposit down on the bottles. This deposit would be returned to you when you returned the empties back to the store.

Some people would drink the contents of the bottles and abandon them along the roads. My father had gone out on those non-working days and walked the shoulders of heavily travelled roads and collected bottles that he could clean up and return to the store for the deposit.

I remember one such time (probably in the late 60s) when my father was away collecting bottles for most of the day and I heard him say that his efforts had made him at little over $2. Somehow this made an impression on me because to this day I can clearly remember the way he said it.

It was not expressed with disgust or defeat. It was just said as a statement of fact.

Over the years my thoughts about how to live in uncertain times have crystalized into an expression that may not be exactly original, but is nonetheless true:

When you don’t know what to do, do what you know to do.

My father would never have used those words, but it was the way he lived his life. Some of that had to have rubbed off on me because I see it in all of my children.