I’m Not Looking for The Yes Man

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 6.01.58 AM“Tell me how you liked the book.” We sat in the professor’s parlor–about ten or twelve of us, a small history cohort. The professor was an old-style academic from the Midwest, who had completed his masters’ degree at the university where I’d been an undergraduate. He held class in his parlor, like Socrates would have done. With coffee, not hemlock.

“Well, I thought the insight he showed into the presidents was very intriguing,” said one student. He went on to outline the amazing revelations he received from the book in unabridged detail. I was confused. Did he accidentally read the Bible?

“It was good,” said another. “I thought last week’s was better, but I enjoyed it.” No further details.

We went around the circle, a few saying little or even passing on their turn, a solid handful giving adulations. Others shifting in their seats.

“And what about you, Dawn?” I hesitated. I had a very different experience with this book.


“Um,” I looked around the room. Half a dozen pens and notebooks were at the ready, as they tended to be in graduate school before we had laptops and iPads. “I thought this was the worst book I’ve ever read.”


“Go on,” the professor said, his face without emotion. It was too late to put the top back on the can of worms. I continued.

“Well,” I said, “The author doesn’t seem to have any academic credentials in this field–I researched him–but that’s not my issue. I might’ve still enjoyed it.” I looked around the room. The one kid seemed ready to revolt. To throw tomatoes. I looked for tomatoes in his hands. Relief–just a pen. And a notebook. With angry notes.

I bent down and extrapolated the offending manuscript from my bag.

“Look,” I said leafing through the circled text and notes in the margin. “Spelling errors. Editing errors, and I’m not sure this event,” I opened to the page, “ever happened,” noting one historical event in question.

“Also, what’s his thesis?  I couldn’t find it….he spoke in vague terms. I couldn’t nail it down. My mind drifted. Sorry. I just didn’t like this book.” I listed a couple of others I did like, historians that gave me deep insights into the dead presidents.

Silence. Pause.

“Congratulations. You got the answer!” he exclaimed. “THIS…is a good example of a really bad book.” The professor excoriated the book for us all. “Sometimes you need to look at the worst of the worst to appreciate the best.” We’d just learned a lesson as historians.

It’s true for life as well.


I do this to my students. I give them a passage, video, or assignment that requires they examine something that stinks worse than a grocery bag of meat forgotten in the trunk of a car in July. I let them debate, argue, and kiss up. Then, I lay on the truth. Sometimes, a kid stands up for his or her belief in the face of everyone else “loving” the passage to seek my approval. That’s the kid who’s going to get through the system and be great.

You see, it’s not about a bunch of minions reading my assignments, and obeying my instructions. It’s about developing keen minds and confidence where students research, connect the dots, and refuse to be the yes man. And can back it up. These are the students who will innovate and iterate the solutions for the future. If you don’t give them things with flaws to examine, then they don’t see anything that needs to be interpreted or fixed.

“A good example of a bad book.”

That was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in school.




[image:  nibiryukov.narod.ru]


“Grandma Cut Off My Ear”–A Lesson about Resistance

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 7.45.17 AM“She poked me!” Declan cried. We’re getting his hair cut. Declan hates haircuts. He cries and resists.  If I were our hairdresser, I’d accidentally cut out his tongue.

I dread taking Declan for haircuts. He makes a big, loud fuss. Our hairdresser recently moved to a spa-salon where everyone takes their beauty very, very seriously. No six-year old boy belongs in a spa-salon where everyone takes their beauty and fashion very, very seriously. Heck, I don’t belong at a spa-salon where everyone takes their beauty and fashion very, very seriously–maybe he inherited the no-fashion gene from me. But at least I don’t cry and scream, disturbing women relaxing with their facials and manicures.

“Remember when Louie the Barber scared me?”

Screen Shot 2013-08-23 at 7.41.52 AM“Yes.” I said. “You were two. He scared you. You’re fine now.”  When Declan arrived at the stage of toddlerhood where his gender became unclear and I started confusing him with a dirty sheep or sandy breed of French poodle, it was time to get a real haircut. My limited skills would no longer do.

My husband said, “No hairdresser. Let him go to the barber with the men.” My dad was going the barber. I asked him to take the poodle along too. I went for support.

The barbershop was small, with enough hair piled on the floor that an 80’s metal band must’ve been the last set of customers. There wasn’t a canister of antiseptic in sight. The band probably drank it after running out of Everclear. The barber was a real old-timer. The medicine pole remained from when they really did do surgery in this specific shop.

The barber found a booster seat, swinging Declan into the chair. Declan screamed. The barber, undeterred, held him down, snipping away. Declan screamed and thrashed, but the barber continued, only narrowly avoiding a stabbing, mullet, or mohawk disaster.

Declan’s hysteria lasted weeks.

“Aren’t they supposed to disinfect the scissors or sweep the hair?” I asked my dad. I didn’t know, I’m not a guy. Girl places are pretty particular about these things, but maybe guys don’t care about infections, germs, gym socks, or dirt. We didn’t return. I resumed the hair cutting duties a while longer.

Then, Grandma intervened.  She’s always been good at haircutting. Declan wheeled his head around. She stabbed his ear.

“AHHHHHHH!” Grandma did not get a good review on Yelp that day.

So, now, we are at the hairdresser. This total saint of a woman is much more of a psychologist than stylist.

“I don’t need a haircut,” Declan informs her. She tells him he does and asks him about dinosaurs and upcoming first grade.

“Remember when Grandma cut my ear off?” He responds.  She checks for signs of van Gogh.

“Grandma did not cut your ear off. It’s still there,” she says. “I won’t cut your ear off. I’ll be quick.” He cries. Spa customers watch. The one nearest says, “Oh, my grandson…” I think the lady in the leggings just shot us a dagger. Declan is still crying and there is a strip of hair cut down the back of his head. It will not do to leave now. Our hairdresser promises she will cut his hair in ten snips. It takes twelve. He tells her.

We escape, I tip, probably not nearly enough. I will bring a gift when I go next week.

I take the boy for ice cream.

“You only cried once today,” I say. “But you’re six now. Next time you won’t even need to cry at all.” A little neurolinguistic programming never hurts. Best to start setting up for the next haircut now.

Amazing how such little things from our past build up so much resistance and stagnation in our lives. The smallest things spiral into bigger and bigger problems and fears until we become incapacitated. This resistance makes us push when we should be pulling, avoid when we should be tackling, and judge when we should be seeing the full picture.

This isn’t only a six-year old’s truth. Often times it’s true for me as well.

I think that means I get some ice cream, too.



[images: doblelol.com, pxleyes.com]


“College Girl–Get Me Some Coffee!”

Screen Shot 2013-04-18 at 8.19.51 AMI needed a job badly. School was expensive. After the financial aid was subtracted, I still had a ton of cash due to the University each month. I moved off campus–our campus housing was like a country club. The food was great, the housing decent, and both were priced accordingly. It was more affordable to live off campus. I needed to work. There was a diner being built down the street sporting a “Help Wanted” sign. How fortuitous.

I walked in the front door. It was still under construction. There were guys doing various degrees of finish work–a guy was working on a booth and another guy was bent over some sheet rock.

“Hi, I noticed you’re looking for help?”

“Yeah,” said one guy, busy looking for a nut or bolt at that very moment.

“I brought my resume.” I said, extending the paper.

The room stopped. All the construction, the bustle, suddenly came to a halt. All eyes were on me.

He took the paper. He read the paper. He shouted over his shoulder.

“Hey, she’s got a resume.” The guys in the back began to laugh. Not just a normal laugh–a headliner at the Comedy Connection laugh. A guffaw.

“A resume!” Laughter. I heard the word a couple more times, choking between the laughs, as the joke was telephoned to every man in the joint, with a new bout of laughter ensuing each time.

I was hired. I don’t think it was my resume–apparently, I learned many jokes at my expense later, one doesn’t apply for a job at a diner with a resume. One goes in, hopefully sober, and gets the job.

I was hired to waitress. “Hey College Girl…get me some coffee!” I heard that a lot.

Working at a diner isn’t easy. It’s a tough crowd. It wasn’t college, though at times hung over fraternities came in. I’d wait on them. I’d wait on all the crazies, particulars, and undesirables. We were located very close to the psych unit of the local hospital, where interesting people abound. Perhaps my boss and the other waitresses thought my college courses included psychology or patience (they did not–they included “work or starve”) Maybe the other staff simply didn’t want to wait on these people. I worked hard.

I quit the diner–I couldn’t randomly stay and close when staff failed to show–I had classes. My boss had a business. I was straddling between both worlds, not really understanding what having a business means. It means you deal with that stuff at all costs.  Now, having my own business, I get that. You don’t just shut the doors because you have a Gospel Choir concert or 2PM class or an ice storm. You stay. You deal. You make things work. These are things entrepreneurs get but “College Girl” wasn’t equipped to understand.

I ran into my boss at the grocery store a few months after I quit. “You were right. She was stealing.” He apologized. I knew I was right. That’s what college is for. Taking stands that made you quit because you were right, while you totally miss the big picture.

I get the big picture now. I write this by way of apology.

That diner was my intro to real life, whether I knew it or not at the time. I was being given the biggest gift of all–getting to be part of the city, part of the good people, receiving mentorship from the real world. My boss always told me, “You’re good with people.” He wanted me to drop out of “that useless college” and do something “real”–a daycare perhaps. He’d front the cash. He knew an opportunity when he saw one.

I wanted to finish college. After college I wanted to finish graduate school. I did. And I did a little bit more, just for good luck. I loved them all.  I read, studied, and networked. I wouldn’t be where I am today without having done so. But my real education–I got at the diner.

I returned to the diner after some time in the Corporate world. I sat down for  lunch. “Hey,” shouted my boss. “Get College Girl some coffee!” That’s when I knew I had earned a modicum of respect, even though I’d gone to college. Years later, when I watch our business grow and succeed today, it’s this boss I remember–the guy who could turn anything into an opportunity. The epitome of entrepreneurship.

“What can you do?” was his mantra. Not “How many books can you read, or how much debt can you incur?” Nobody in that business ever asked to see my sheepskins.

It took me nearly two decades, but I finally understand. Creating businesses and opportunity is hard. This stuff doesn’t magically appear. None of this is easy. This is one lesson I wished I understood while I was standing in that diner. It’s one lesson I hope to impart to my own students. It’s something “the tests” don’t measure and we don’t teach well systemically.

When you make, create, and work through problems, you do something that no 9-5 job does–you create a space for yourself in society. A unique spot in the universe nobody can take away.

This is what I’ve learned. It’s what I’d like to teach going forward.

[image: rochestermetromix.com]





Think Ahead or Die: Chess Education in Grade K (Chess: Part 1)


Author Peter Smalley's son levies a crushing defeat on the family cat.

Author Peter Smalley’s son levies a crushing defeat against the family cat.

Chess Story One:  Playing Chess with the Boy

We are playing chess. Declan and I. I started playing at about five. Never mastered it, because I don’t think several moves head. I’m too social. I’d rather talk. In chess, you must think several moves ahead–devise a plan in response to every counter-initiative long before your opponent hatches his evil scheme.

I never have a plan. I just move the pieces around until someone better than me wipes me out.  But I can’t lose to a five-year old. That’s the line in the sand. There’s pride involved. I wipe him out mercilessly every time.  He tries hard. He asks all the right questions.

“Why does the knight move like an ‘L?’ Why not ‘A’ or ‘S’ or ‘C’?” I must confess I do not know.

“Why can the queen do anything she wants?” Because that’s the role of the woman in the universe.

“Why don’t you let me win?” Because I’d bring shame upon myself that would last all of eternity.

So, I said this, “Life doesn’t ‘let you win,’ kid. Do you want to grow up with a false sense of self-esteem? Do you want to lose the ability to feel like a winner when you win for real? Or do you want the system to artificially create conditions so that no child gets left behind and you have a false sense of self-worth that will be stripped away the minute your first boss kicks you in the teeth with the reality of your very existence?”

He paused to consider this. “Mommy, if he kicks me, I will defeat him with my karate–like this!” That is the upside to owning a martial arts establishment.

“You don’t really want me to let you win at the cost of your self-respect, do you?” I inquired.

“Yup. Let me win.” Another generation down the toilet.

Occasionally, he’ll try the “I’m going to put it here, but don’t take it, Mommy” defense. As if that negotiation will let him get away with the flagrant dangling of an unprotected queen. I immediately take it. He’ll yell, “I TOLD YOU NOT TO TAKE IT!”

So I reply, “Listen, we already discussed this…if I don’t take it, you’ll get a false sense of self-esteem. It’s like inflating test scores. It just reduces the national IQ in the end.” And he grumbles. I follow up with some sage advice from the heart. “In life, you have to protect your assets.”

“Don’t say ‘assets’ Mommy! It’s a bad word.”

“No, ‘assets’ is okay. Liabilities are bad.”  He’s already moved on to the next piece. Planning ahead.

The game continues. I win.  Again.  Maybe some day, he will take in some of these lessons and improve. I really don’t want that to happen, though, because then I’ll have to start planning ahead and improving. And when it comes right down to brass tacks, I don’t want to put in all that hard work. I just want to win–the easy way.

Tomorrow:  Part two of my chess series. Hardly call it a “series,” and I’m really bad at chess. Chess and Improv–Why Making 2 or 3 Plans Makes You Less Likely to Get Squashed.

[Photo credit: Peter Smalley, author, biochemist, and father of this budding chess champion. I wish to set him up with Declan if the cat ever goes on vacation]