Saturday, February 11, 2012

Help From Outside

"You don't understand anything until you learn it more than one way." - Marvin Minsky

   Run head first into the wall. Bang your head against it a couple more times for good measure. And repeat.

   I spent a pretty good chunk of this past Tuesday afternoon doing that. I had a partner. Or perhaps I was her partner. Either way, the wall came in the form of fourth grade math. And we never did break through it. Nor did we wise up and look for another route.

   Fractions and decimals. 3/4 = .75. That kinda thing. I couldn't get it to stick to her. I tried the usual analogies. I pulled coins from my backpack. Showed her some of the ways in which she already converts numbers from one form to another on a daily basis. But she wasn't having it. And as time wore on, she even seemed to regress. Not only was she failing to learn the new stuff, but she was suddenly incapable of doing the more simple work that she'd done just fine with only moments before. Arms folded. Lips pursed. Eyes stared off into eternity. The verdict was in. She had reached her zenith, and there was nowhere to go but down.

   Of course that probably wasn't her zenith. Her next tutor probably found a better way to explain it to her. And she is probably on her way to new challenges in arithmetic as I write this. Or perhaps that was it. Perhaps she's smoking her first cigarette right now. Setting in motion a series of bad decisions that will culminate in a life full of hardship and bad math skills. But regardless of her path, my mistake remains the same. I didn't find another approach.

   It's not that I didn't consider the need for another approach. I did. But I wasn't coming up with anything useful on my own, and I didn't ask for help. There was plenty of help to be had. I was in a room with more than a dozen other tutors. There was another tutor three feet away from me. Hell, I could have even asked an older student. Somebody that had just learned this stuff as recently as last year. But I didn't. I just beat my head against the wall. I acted as though I too had reached my zenith. I acted as though I had nothing more to learn from anybody else. That student and I were two peas in a pod.

   The next morning, I went for a run along Lake Michigan with my friend Ryan. It was sunny and unseasonably warm. We ran at an easy pace. We talked about basketball. We talked about running. And we talked about running injuries.

   I still haven't fully recovered from an ankle injury that I suffered over five months ago. I've tried a few things. I've tried rest. I've tried light running. I've ditched old shoes. I've done some ankle exercises. And then I've repeated those same things. Over and over.

   As we ran, we dodged the holes and ruts that winter weather had worn into the lakefront path, and Ryan occasionally dropped behind me when the path grew narrow. That vantage point offers a view of a runner's form that they're unable to get on their own. From behind, you can see how a runner's feet hit the ground. And if you get just a little to the side, you can gauge their stride and posture. Ryan is a running coach, and naturally engaging and personable, so it made sense that as he dropped behind me while I talked about my injury, that he'd take a moment to assess my form and offer his thoughts.

   He had several things to point out about my form. And he offered a number of suggestions as to how I might make some changes or improvements that might keep me healthy, and perhaps even make me a faster and more efficient runner.

   I took his advice. I started working with his ideas during that run. And yesterday, I got on a treadmill by myself and focused on a couple of specific points that seem to need some work. And while that didn't lead to any immediate miracle cure, it did seem to help quite a bit. I found myself running with a level of physical comfort that I hadn't had in a while. And with that comfort came some hope and optimism that has also been in short supply as of late.

   But there was also a sense of frustration. For months, I've been beating my head against the wall. Fighting this injury with the same failed tactics. Over and over. Folding my arms. Pursing my lips. Staring into eternity. And choosing to ignore all of the help that is readily available for me. Choosing to go at it alone, rather than acknowledge that somebody else can offer a perspective that I'm not seeing on my own.

   This pattern isn't a new one. It's one that I've struggled with for as long as I can remember. And I know that there is not going to be any instant and immediate change in that regard.  I won't walk away from this keyboard and make a dramatic and permanent change in the way that I deal with adversity. And my ankle won't instantly heal, simply because I tried something new. And that student won't magically let go of her frustrations and begin soaking up every lesson thrown her way.

   But I can chip away at it. A moment of humility here. An awkward and embarrassing question there. I can let my guard down from time to time. And hopefully, eventually, come to the conclusion that I never needed to have it up in the first place.



  1. A wonderful reminder that the same brain that created the problem usually needs some outside help pulling together a solution. Thank you for this.

  2. You keep adding to the ways & reasons why I am proud of you.

  3. Love this piece. You're always inspiring me to continually be engaged in self-reflection to make the most of this one life we are given to live.

    Also- Jonas' comment is so dead on!