On Tater Tots, Proverbs, and Just Showing Up
It was “computer class” at Lowell Elementary School in Salt Lake City, circa 1989.
We little proto-humans were packed into a windowless room that was glazed in fluorescent light and flanked with greenscreen Apple IIe machines. The future had arrived—as much as it ever does in public schools.
Scribbled on the whiteboard was an impressive diagram in which lines and arrows connected the vitals of the new-ish organism called COMPUTER: the Central Processing Unit, the Random-Access Memory, the Hard Disk, the Power Cord. To our playdough minds, these were Important Words, though effectively undifferentiated from Warp Drive, Holodeck, and Light Saber.
And as Important as it all seemed, and as much as we certainly wanted to be Good Little Computerists, we were mostly eager to play Oregon Trail, usually covertly while the teacher was whiteboarding. I would have strayed too—and I probably did sometimes—but, among my peers, I had a special problem.
The teacher was my dad.
Lowell Elementary required a heavy degree of parental involvement and volunteering. My mom would come at assigned times to our homeroom and help with the three Rs, but somehow my dad got thrown in the digital lion’s den, in a subterranean corner of the building, near the cafeteria, where it always reeked of tater tots.
He had a special problem too: he didn’t actually know much about computers.
It’s generally accepted that “the best way to learn is to teach.” The notion is so old that it’s a Latin proverb: docendo discimus. And if it’s really old—and Latin, to boot—it must be self-evidently true.
What’s less evident is just how much more the teacher is supposed to know than the learner.
Pilots? Surgeons? We’d like to believe they are trained by experts who have logged a lot of hours in the cockpit or operating room. If that isn’t the case, please don’t tell me before my next flight or surgery.
“Computer Class” teachers in 1989? The vetting process was rigorous: Criminal background? No. Pulse?
(I passed a similarly rigorous test when I became the Junior Achievement specialist for my son’s kindergarten class.)
And so my dad—who was easily working 60 hours per week to get his fledgling company off the ground, while also actively co-parenting three kids under the age of nine and remodeling our fixer-upper house—became Mr. Maxfield the Computer Expert to a bunch of distractible second graders who also reeked of tater tots.
Of course, it’s a feature of the human condition that we don’t know what we don’t know.
For the students, who didn’t know anything to begin with, we were convinced that Mr. Maxfield did, in fact, know everything because he had used computers for advanced sounding things like Word Processing and Lotus 1-2-3. Practically Warp Drive material!
Meanwhile, Mr. Maxfield discovered that the elementary school, despite having no curriculum, did have a license for the LOGO educational programming language, known for its cutesy turtle graphics. He did not know how to write a line of code, but not knowing things has never slowed Mr. Maxfield.
For example, the city inspector of our 2013 home remodel project asked which electrician had done such a fine job wiring our main breaker box. Well, that would be Mr. Maxfield—who shows up with tools and a smile anytime there is a project to be done. After a lifetime of, you know, “just helping out,” he has become a formidable framer, plumber, electrician, carpenter, mechanic, designer, consultant, scoutmaster, advisor, social worker—all extracurricular byproducts of not letting a little ignorance or inconvenience slow him down.
And thus, in his spare time—meaning “while healthier people slept”—the Computer Expert taught himself LOGO and developed a system for teaching programming to squirrels.
We would march around the computer room, counting our steps, turning left and turning right—like players in a human Pac-Man game, gobbling up little tater tot dots as we tried to catch up with the Expert himself—and then repeat our steps in code, causing our turtles to draw the shapes we had outlined with our feet. It was a clever scheme that engaged us kinetically and intellectually, all at once.
Looking back, I’m certain there were people more qualified for the gig. In fact, at that moment, someone was probably writing a dissertation called Developments in Development: Techniques for Computational Linguistic Transference in Juvenile Homo Sapiens. But just as chance favors the prepared mind (or so claimed Louis Pasteur), so life seems to favor the volunteer. And squirrels everywhere are ready to march, eager to march, should the volunteer arrive. It doesn’t require a crazy Renaissance Person. A Willing Human will suffice, which is good news for the rest of us.
Did we know the teacher was likely only a step or two ahead of us?
Probably not, but it didn’t matter because the Computer Expert followed a proverb more primal than docendo discimus, probably the sine qua non of parenting and civic engagement—and probably the best advice when the stakes fall somewhere between tater tots and rocket surgery, which is, let’s face it, nearly all of the time.
Venite tum facite: First, show up. Then do something!
The squirrels will thank you.
(And they won’t mind a bit if you’re just one step ahead. Or if I happen to have made up the proverb and asked my friend Tony to translate it into Latin. Exitus Acta Probat! The ends justify the means!)