Time to think: The importance for non-experts to pause for reflection

by Mr. Sheehy

My wife had to beat up an old lady today to get the last dehumidifier at the hardware store. She didn’t want to do it, but she figured that the old lady surely had no more than one other person living with her–clearly making her need less than ours. If it got bad, surely that lady had some friend’s house where she could stay until the mold died.

I’m kidding of course, my wife didn’t beat her up, just nudged her hard enough to get the last dehumidifier in town. Now admittedly she would not have done it had it not been for my intervention. I let her know before she left how important her success was: “Remember, we’re counting on you. The baby is counting on you.” I gave her a knowing nod and pumped my fist one time, calmly and forcefully.

The question people ask as soon as I say we got water in our basement is, “How much?” It’s a sensible question, but it’s hard to answer, because it’s not like we stood there and waited for it to rise so we could brag about the height of the water line. When folks ask “How much?”, then, do they mean how much was there at 3:00am when I noticed it and we began bailing out the ship like the disciples in the storm? Or do you mean how many buckets did I dump into my toilet and then later pump into the yard? I suppose it doesn’t matter, since either way I have the same official measurement: seemed like a lot.

I suppose I could tell a long story about our basement adventure, but I think about half of town is telling the same story today, so it’s well known. Water leaked in, sump pump sort of worked, this was ruined, that was soaked, the Shop Vac is the most amazing tool on the planet, and now it’s box fans and dehumidifiers. One thing I found interesting about the entire event, however, was how many times I got some insight about a better way to do something we’d been doing. The insight always came when I somehow stopped acting and started thinking.

We’re new homeowners, as I mention often (there’s no coincidence that this coincides with my completion of grad school) so we haven’t done this before now — thus, we possess no experience to look back on and use to our advantage. That meant that when I lumbered down the stairs in the middle of the night to check on things, I didn’t think, I just did the first thing I could think of: I grabbed a towel and began ringing water into a bucket. I filled it twice and dumped it down the toilet before thinking consciously. The thought: Get help.

I went to get my wife and we saw a bubbling mass of water high above the sump pump hole, she suggested bailing it out with the bucket. Great idea! I bailed the water into the toilet and when the levels were low, I used a towel to plow water into the sump hole. New thought: this towel thing is stupid.

I said I needed a squeegee, and my wife suggested I use the dust pan. That worked great (it has a rubber edge), and we used that method (squeegee in, bail out) for a couple hours before she woke her parents and went to get the Shop Vac. When she was gone I took a momentary break (not too long, the sump hole collected about a gallon of water every minute) to wonder what the heck was going on. The thought: Why is that sump pump hole making all that noise?

I reached in to investigate and found that the drain tube had disconnected from the pump. I fixed it and turned my attention outside, to drawing the pumped water further away from the house than the tube could reach.

Now I won’t go on and on about every detail of our flooded basement, but I will note the patterns of the thoughts. First off, I am aware that I married well; if it weren’t for my wife, I might have sat there ringing a towel into a bucket until the water rose over my nose. Secondly, however, is that because I am not an expert at bailing out a leaking/flooding basement, I was not able to think while acting. I had to stop acting before I was able to reflect on what I was doing. In my areas of expertise (teaching, reading, public speaking) I am able to think and act fairly simultaneously (though for the best thinking I must even then stop acting), but when I am not an expert, the action takes too much of my concentration to allow me to engage my mind in two places.

Enter the consideration of the student. By definition a student is not an expert in the content being studied. That means that a student likely is not able to think and act at the same time; if a student is to think, he or she will need time to stop, absorb, reflect, and realize.

I needed a break to arrive at an insight regarding our sump pump. For two hours I bailed water out of a hole and dumped it into a toilet, never questioning why the water was noisily streaming in the hole like it was a creek’s delta. An expert would have seen my actions and laughed patronizingly (“He thought the water was pouring in that fast! But the sump pump had created a fountain! Ha!”), but how was I to know? And how was I to think when I didn’t have time to question, only to bail? When I did think, the idea of the bubbling water became ridiculous. Hence, the solution.

Give a kid a chance to think, and he may not seem so thick — even to himself. When reading Of Mice and Men I made my juniors stop four times and each time write about four passages they thought were important. Before the third time, I asked them if it was getting repetitive, but one student replied, “No, I think it helps.” How it helped, I’m convinced, is that it made students stop as they read, so they could think. When they did that, they realized they had seen quite a bit as they read and knew more than they realized.

At 7:00pm on Memorial day, two days after the water entered the basement, and the evening after spending the day tearing up the floor, it occurred to me that we really should have bought a dehumidifier. By then the stores were closed, so the next day my wife headed to the store and bought the last one.

The old lady, it turned out, needed a smaller size, so she actually went untouched. I’ll leave you to imagine what would have happened if that smaller size had been out . . .

Thanks for reading.

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