Monday, July 10, 2017

No horn, no hollerin'

Twenty-five-plus years ago, I sat in driver’s education class and dreamed big.  Just like every other sixteen-year-old, I imagined the freedom of a driver's license.  I fantasized about the car I would get.  A Pontiac Grand Am, perhaps, or maybe a cute, zippy Ford Escort.  My father and I had made a deal—he would purchase the car, and I’d pay for insurance and gas to drive it around.  He assured me he would find a good deal, something safe, something reliable.  “Something affordable,” he said.

I knew him well enough to know there was sure to be some rust, and a few dents, and maybe a clunking engine.   But still—silly me!—I imagined I would end up in a car whose undeniable flaws would actually be endearing.  Charming, even.

I should have known better.  “Something affordable,” he’d said.  We were not a well-off family.  That’s putting it mildly.  My father took “affordable” very, very seriously.

My “new” “car” was decidedly not cute and zippy.  It was a 1972 Chevy pickup truck—a mess, for sure, ancient and old and rusty.  Embarrassing.  It had nicks and holes on every square inch, and sounded like an airplane hanger.   It was quick to slide out of gear; I often had to get under the hood to move a lever back into place before the truck would move.  When it did, it took real effort to get the thing going a decent speed.  Worst of all, in an effort to stop the creeping rust, my father took to it with an old wire-bristled paintbrush, covering it thickly with a coat of powder blue paint—an obnoxious color left over from one of his construction jobs. 

I knew my father well; no amount of whining or pouting would change a thing.  This ugly, broken thing was mine to keep.

And then:  There was hope.  The first time I took it out for a drive, I discovered that the horn was broken.  I was giddy—I thought I’d found my golden ticket.

“Dad?  I’m not going to be able to drive this truck.”  I shook my head regretfully.  “It doesn’t have a horn that works.”

“You don’t need a horn.”

“Of course I need a horn.  It’s not safe to drive around without one.”

He looked at me.  “If you pay enough attention to everything that’s going on around you as you drive, you won’t need a horn,” he said.  “All a car horn does is give you the ability to holler at people with it.”

“What about if someone is stopped at a red light, and it turns green, and they won’t go, and I need to remind them?”

“Work on your patience.  They’ll be ready to go soon enough.”

“What if I need to warn another driver? About… I don’t know… something?”  It sounded feeble, even to me.

“If you pay attention, no warnings will be needed.” 

“What if someone does something really stupid?”

“Give yourself five minutes.  By then, you will undoubtedly do something equally stupid, and you can just hope no one uses their horn on you.”  He stood up and moved to leave.  Over his shoulder, he said, “Remember:  Horns are for hollerin', and excellent drivers rarely need to holler.”

And so it was.  I drove that truck for three years, never once having the option of a horn.  And it was all fine.  Old habits die hard, too; in the years since, as my cars have gotten increasingly operational, I doubt I’ve used my horn even a handful of times.  I’ve wanted to—no one is immune to wanting to scream at someone on the road—but I just… haven’t.

I’m not advocating for not having horns—I am sure they can warn and alert drivers of impending danger.  That’s not my point at all.  I’m just realizing that along the way, starting with driving a truck without a working horn, I figured out something important:  Hollering at someone—whether it’s with an automobile horn or a crazy, angry voice—doesn’t  work.  Ever.  Being on the other end of someone’s fury and having it blast into your ears is the fastest way to stop all conversation, because it becomes a battle between the mean and the meaner.

As teachers and administrators, we have all types of horns.  We have red pens.  We have snarky comments.  We have the ability to administer impossible tests and tasks; divvy out negative feedback and low grades; shrug our shoulders and be dismissive. Rather than own our mistakes, we can refer to policy and procedure; we can shift blame; we can look for mistakes and missteps in others.  We can point angrily when we speak, deflecting the problem to someone else. In other words, since we’re often in charge, we can figuratively holler our hearts out.

But as I learned from my father all those years ago:  Horn or not, there is no need to holler.  

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