Friday, November 20, 2020

Getting Into and Out of Predicaments

Yesterday morning, I took a long walk in an unfamiliar place. The advent of global positioning system maps, the kind found on every smartphone, has made this a less adventurous proposition than it was even a decade ago. I used to regularly get myself lost and found, but on this day I checked the map and found a route that avoided major roads. It was a bit of a detour, but I was out, in part, for exercise, so I winded my way through unfamiliar neighborhoods for over half and an hour before discovering that the key connector I'd been shooting for was blocked off by the locked gate of a community of private homes. I briefly considered just climbing the fence, but the camera and signs promising an "armed response" to intruders, made me pause. I finally decided that the solution to this predicament was to backtrack. I cursed the failure of the map in my pocket and the full hour I'd spent getting no where.

Once I was back on a main road, however, I set out once more, confident in my surroundings, my predicament behind me. Not long thereafter, however, a man on a bicycle emerged from a roughly paved path that snaked between houses. The signage indicated it was a bike track. It wasn't indicated on my map application, but I figured, having biked along countless bike tracks that taking it would eventually land me near some landmarks, and from there I could find my way home. The path was enclosed on both sides with cyclone fence to ensure that cyclists didn't trespass on private property. After another half hour I came to a fork in the road. One led off into the distance in a direction opposite to where I wanted to go, while the other was, that's right, blocked by a locked gate, this one topped with razor wire making climbing entirely out of the question. Again, the solution to this predicament was to backtrack.

Once more back on the main road, a full two hours of my morning having been eaten up going more or less no where, I vowed this time to stick to the main stem, a heavily trafficked thoroughfare, only to discover that the road was at one point under construction. Cars could snake through, but there was no place for pedestrians. Any alternative route would eat up at least another hour. This is when I considered just calling an Uber, but the thought of it felt like failure. One side of the roadway was entirely impassable, but upon further study, I spied a rise along the opposite side that looked promising. I crossed over, dodging traffic, to find the ground liberally littered with construction debris. Taking this route meant I would have to trespass, but this time there were no threatening signs, so I lurched up the narrow rise of grass, traffic now below me, and picked my way to the top, where I saw the ground open up into a muddy ravine. But father on, I saw what appeared to be a way through, so I continued forward.

I navigated though the mud, hopping over ground that was marred by the be-puddled imprint of construction vehicle tire treads. I finally emerging into a sandy area that lead me to a second grassy incline. This one was higher than the previous one, at least 15 feet above the roadway. Not only that but here they had erected a temporary fence that pinched the path no more than a foot wide at the highest point. If I fell from there onto the busy street, injury was certain and death possible. As I contemplated my new predicament, I realized I was faced with the choice of taking the risk or backtracking yet again, a project at would eat up the rest of my morning and the beginning of my afternoon, leaving me, for all my efforts, exactly no where. So I summoned my courage and went for it.

As I passed the narrowest point I began to internally celebrate. I'd once more gotten myself out of a predicament. I knew where I was now. Indeed, I knew that there was a decent diner along the route, one that has moved its tables outside, well-spaced for the pandemic. I would be rewarding myself with some corned beef hash and eggs.

Later, when my wife asked me what I'd done with my morning, I told her I'd taken a long walk, not bothering her with the petty predicaments I had gotten myself into and out of, yet as I look back, it was those predicaments that gave the morning savor. I could have easily avoided those predicaments by sticking to my well-traveled paths, but then I would have missed out on the process of extricating myself. Finding ourselves in predicaments is evidence that we've strayed from the main road, that we're trying something new. The learning comes from getting ourselves out of it. Indeed, from one perspective life can be viewed as a journey of getting into and out of predicaments, each one teaching us something about ourselves and our world. This, one can argue, is what education should be: not predicaments imposed on us by others, like when presenting us with a list of math problems we must solve or homework we must do, but predicaments of our own making, ones caused by our own curiosity and ultimately solved by our own actions.

When I watch young children play together, this is what happens. They are forever getting themselves into predicaments, be they intellectual, physical, social, or emotional. We often leap in to help them, like Uber drivers arriving at the curb without being ordered, but when we do, we rob them of the savor found in extracting themselves. We rob them of the success. Perhaps they will need our help, so we stay nearby, but when we allow them to study their own predicaments and make their own decisions about how to get out, we put them in a position to learn the important lesson that they can find their own way out.


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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