Wednesday, July 09, 2014

The "Idiot" Is Me

The other day I had lunch with my parents. Dad's a retired transportation engineer and as often happens our conversation touched on roads and driving. There was some of the typical complaining, which is the gist of most discussions of traffic, but because, I suppose, it's Dad's profession, each gripe segued into solutions. I'm not a happy driver, which I've written about before on this blog, which was why, despite not feeling quite myself, I chose a 25-mile round-trip bike ride over getting behind the wheel of the car. Then something pretty cool happened, we started talking about the good drivers out there. You know the ones: the majority, the ones you don't notice even while speeding shoulder-to-shoulder at 65 mph; the ones who manage four-way stops without a hitch; the ones who we entrust with our lives and the lives of our loved ones each time we take to the roads.

It's a kind of miracle actually. Yes, we arrive at our destinations fuming about the "idiots," but it's the rest of them, the majority, cooperating, taking turns, abiding by the rules, showing small courtesies, that helped get us there safe and sound. It's easier to think this way while breaking bread with one's family than while sitting in a traffic jam, I reckon, but when you really think about it, especially when it comes to big city driving, it can be a soothing balm to one's sore opinion of humanity.

I feel the same way, of course, when it's the kids at school who spontaneously, democratically, and indeed, miraculously, come together like a single organism to achieve a common end or devise a common means. But it's not a miracle at all. It's what, when left to our own devices, we do if given the chance.

Too often as adults in the lives of young children, we find ourselves tasked with dealing with the "accidents" or playing the role of traffic cop, doling out the citations and warnings to the "idiots," and that, unfortunately, at the end of the day is what sticks with us. We lose sight of the fact that most of the kids, most of the time, are cooperating, taking turns, abiding by our agreements, and showing small courtesies because that's what people do, no matter how small.

Over many decades of talking about traffic with a transportation engineer, I've come to understand, I think, some important principles. At one time or another all of us are the "idiots," because we are human. There are a few of us that, for lack of a proper education in the art of day-to-day democracy, are "idiots" a lot of the time. And then there are times when everyone is an "idiot." That's where you'll find the design flaws: it's not the drivers who are the idiots, but rather the engineer.

As a teacher, I try every day to appreciate our shared idiocy, to understand that most mistakes, for most of us, are of the self-correcting variety. We give one another a hug and are on our way. When a child habitually struggles to cooperate, to take turns, to abide by rules, and to show small courtesies, I strive to help him come to an understanding of how community works. And when it looks like rebellion, I have to know that the children are simply rising up, as we do in all democracies, to let me know that the "idiot" is me, and I have some design issues to work out.

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