For drain pipes and student achievement, buy the good stuff

by Mr. Sheehy

I have fewer than 13 hours to serve on my graduate internship sentence, and I opened this weekend with an edge of excitement. I was ahead of schedule and had only one major hurdle to leap – the literature review and “research” report of my project. I even thought I might use my remaining discretionary day as a writing day and chop off most of the paper in a type of mini-retreat (I had visions of a borrowed laptop in my in-laws’ basement, Internet free and supplied with a pot of decaf coffee). Then I checked the final assignment for my other class – the other road block between me and a degree – and discovered it was bigger than I anticipated. It’s not unruly big, but it took the shine off the glasses that had focused my positive outlook.

But that didn’t keep me at this darned machine all weekend. I managed to find time to fix the drain in the bathroom sink, a process that began with a rubber washer between the drain and the basin. You may not be able to visualize that because you’ve never seen it. You’re not supposed to have seen it, because it wasn’t supposed to be there. That’s fine; it appears to have been a minor repair done shortly before we purchased the house. The previous owner (or whoever did the repair) thought the washer went there. It didn’t, and so the sink always had standing water in it and the water was beginning to ruin the finish.

I have documented how inept I am around the house, but in case you’re new here, I submit to you my roof, which I repaired by laying down some expensive materials and covering them with half a can of Blackjack roof gunk. A friend of ours (a contractor) encouraged me to do it myself because it would be an easy job. I don’t know which part he thought was supposed to be easy, but I must have missed it. For some unknown reason, that side of the house hasn’t fallen down yet.

Anyway, I tinkered with the sink last week and an initial test was successful. Then I officially assembled it, however, and it leaked in two places. Most distressing was the leak by the drain plug lever, which commenced because I broke the plastic nut while tightening it (by hand). End result: Bucket under the sink for a day.

Off to the hardware store, where I bought a new drain plug unit. I tried it but couldn’t get the new nut on the old drain. They were the same size, technically, but they really weren’t. Day 2 status: Bucket under the sink for another day.

Back to the hardware store, where I had to purchase a $20+ drain piece because I broke that one plastic nut. I bought the metal kind and earned the affirmation of the clerk – “I’ve never had anything but trouble from those plastic drains. It’s no good when you can’t tighten it when you’re working with water.”

The reassembly went so smoothly I was almost willing to meander outside to inquire why rain water was dripping through the eave instead of the gutter last Friday. But the broken nut and plastic pipe in the garbage can beside me checked my eagerness, and instead I celebrated by inventing an aphorism: “It’s worth buying the good stuff.” The good stuff is easier to work with, it lasts longer, and it will be easier to repair. My mom quipped, “You get what you pay for,” but I had to disagree, because with the cheap stuff, I don’t think you even get that much. For 3/4 of the price of the good stuff you get a broken piece of plastic that cost the manufacturer less than a cent and costs you $20 to replace.

Anyway, the drain now works great and the sink is better than it was.

Which means tomorrow I can return to something I am good at: teaching students something about literature, reading, and writing. With our unit on The Crucible I began using a “study guide” – a six-ish page packet of reading questions for each act of the play. I used it because I am admittedly not thrilled about slugging through this play and because I didn’t have any other ideas about how to get through it as fast as possible.

The problem is, I never use questionnaires like this. Never. I’m fully convinced that I should be teaching students how to read without a set of questions to point out what is important. If they aren’t asking the questions, I should be teaching them how to ask the questions. If they can’t retain the characters and action in their minds as we read, I should be teaching them how I retain those elements of a story when I read (after all, I haven’t read with a packet of questions since high school).

Now, my colleagues use these questions (that’s where I got them), so I need to backtrack a bit and add that they surely use these questions better than I do. I have a feeling some use them in place of reading quizzes and discuss the events that are addressed in the questions as they read the text with the students, showing by model and guidance how to spot and note those kinds of details. My understanding is that they use the questions in a manner similar to how I use a study guide and embedded questions for Romeo and Juliet, so I’m not trying to demean anyone and suggest that questions are wrong. I am admitting, however, that I am not so responsible and I end up using the questions as a thing to do. “Thing to do” work is bad. It’s coloring pictures that have already been drawn, it’s watching two hours of TV three nights in one week, it’s surfing the web looking at random anythings. But I fall into the thing-to-do because I want to zing through the play and by the time students finish all these silly questions I don’t have a moment more to delay, unless we want to spend two months on The Crucible. Which we don’t.

Oh, this is bad. This is giving my students the plastic drain pipe with the 1¢ nut that breaks as soon as any real strain is applied to it. It’s going to cost them a heap to repair when they discover it hasn’t been assembled correctly, and they’re going to wish I had done it better the first time, even if my intentions were genuine and considerate when I did it, and even if they still like me despite it.

I buy myself the good stuff. Metal drain pipes, obviously, but also a graduate school degree where I write large research papers and launch projects bigger than they need to be, projects where I challenge myself and attempt to produce something special. Projects that keep me busier than I want to be but projects that push me to improve. In other words, I demand from myself and for myself the good stuff.

I want to do the same for them. I want to buy them the good stuff.

Which means tomorrow we’ll rip up our packets and students will begin writing their own study guides to the play. We’ll stop reading and they’ll write a synopsis (or list) of the major events they recall from that section. Then they’ll check with classmates to see if they missed anything. And then maybe I’ll share mine, if I have anything they missed.

And even if their minds are full of plastic drain pipes, I think they’ll feel as good as I do about replacing one of them with the good stuff.

Thanks for reading.