Storing knowledge in the empty room

by Mr. Sheehy

Here I sit, ready to write again after a lengthy hiatus, sifting through the information in my head, wondering where to pawn it, or, more specifically, how. Am I using the Internet to communicate through writing, or am I using it as a giant garage sale, looking for the person who might be searching for the strange arrangements I display on my table?

“Here, sir, look at this. For 25 cents I can tell you about Alvin MacDonald. At 17, he began climbing down caves in Western South Dakota with candles and a length of string. In three years he’d explored and documented at least eight miles of cave. How’s that for a job after high school? And then he died at 20, but not from doing something stupid in a cave. He got sick. ”

“Yes, maybe caves aren’t your thing. Do you like camels? For a dollar I’ll tell you about the camel at the Denver Zoo – its humps sag. Yes, saggy humps. They fold over to one side like someone sucked the fat from them. Just try to convince a child that a camel’s hump is not full of water when they sag like an empty hot water bag.”

“But if that’s not to your liking, I’ve got more. Really, I do. I can tell you about Calvin Coolidge – he lived in the Black Hills for a summer and had a mountain named after him. Or about coffee and the best way to brew it (more grounds than you realize – 2 tablespoons per 6 oz. of water) . . . Then there’s baseball – did you know Keith Hernandez once hit 24 game winning RBIs in a season?”

And the likelihood that you’ll bite one is slim, but that is okay, because it’s my information, my storage space, my blog. And somehow I retain the information as knowledge – not as data, as the knowledge management experts will point out. But why these facts, these images, these experiences, and not others? I made no conscious decision regarding them, they just stuck. They’re like those details from a story you remember long after forgetting the plot – and at this moment, I have yet to discover a use for them.

But why emphasize a use? I’ll toss them into my empty room to be dug up later.

The empty room is a phrase I use with a loving grin, and it seems to be a fitting metaphor for my head. My mother-in-law calls a room in the basement the empty room, but the room hasn’t been empty since my wife was in high school. Still, when we need to store an extra box or child’s swing, there always seems to be a spot for it. Of course, the more that goes in there, the more difficult it becomes to find anything that entered previously, including the ping pong table, which I boast to have once seen.

There’s a teaching point in all this, honest. Students filter what I do with them too, and not on purpose. I remember Mr. Lesniewski’s American history class well. He made us memorize a few key dates for the Civil War. I think Gettysburg occurred around the 3rd of July around 1865(?) but I wouldn’t bet on it. I would, however, bet on the battle. I hold vividly in my head the desperate maneuver Chamberlin and his men from Maine used to hold the edge of the Union line against the charging Confederacy. And I remember being in Gettysburg, on the same hill, when Lesniewski yelled on his way down, “Fix bayonets!”

The date, I’m sure he hoped we’d retain for basic understanding of chronology. The experience, he surely wanted us to retain with exact detail. And so he told us their story and helped me relive it by giving me my own story to recall. He filled the moment with details – great details – and I keep them in my empty room and stumble across them sometimes – often when I’m digging behind the ping pong table for a sleeping bag.

My stories, my tangents, and every embarrassing or goofy moment in the classroom are more than relationship builders – they’re solidifiers – they’re glue. The better I attach experiences to them, the more my students carry away from my classes to their own empty rooms, where they can keep much more than they ever thought they could.



Original image: ‘.Rue Cartier [2007]‘ by: Edgar H

Original image: ‘Beautiful Night for Baseball‘  by: Chirag Shah

Scene behind the breastworks on Culps Hill, morning of July 3rd 1862; Forbes, Edwin, 1839-1895, artist. (LOC).