It felt like a metaphor, even as it was happening. I sat there, hands blackened by grease and dust, my son sitting on his bed looking down at me amongst the debris, the tip of the yellow and maroon tie winking at me from the mouth of the vacuum cleaner.
My mood was souring quickly; I’d just sucked up the Harry Potter tie from my six year old’s Halloween costume, and I had that sinking feeling that the machine was broken beyond repair, the tie was lost forever, and in a few minutes I’d be explaining my idiocy for not looking where I was vacuuming when I had to tell my wife what happened.
I figured the metaphor might be something about mistakes, about the importance of paying attention and staying in the moment. I’d get a post out of it, anyway, even if it cost me some embarrassment and a new vacuum.
Screwdriver in hand, I pulled apart the machine, thinking the metaphor might have something to do with having to clean up the messes we make. There was certainly enough dust around me to suggest this was happening to teach me something.
And then my son, whose tie it was, and whose attitude I was worried might be one of disappointment and loss, looked at the parts of the vacuum strewn across his bedroom floor and said one word, giving it two syllables for emphasis: “Awesome.”
And I knew this was a metaphor for learning.
Sometimes learning is neat, straight lines and right angles: a spreadsheet, haiku, or historical timeline. Sometimes it’s covered in grime and inspires quiet swearing we hope our kids won’t hear (or at least won’t repeat in front of their mom).
I see both kinds of learning as I travel through classrooms at my school, and I love it when I see students willing to roll up their sleeves and pull apart the experiences presented to them by their teachers.
Some students revel in this engagement, happy to be trying something new. They embrace the challenges presented to them with the same excitement as my son, Henry, who slid down beside me on the carpet and picked up a screwdriver. “Look at the vacuum,” he whispered, his eyes wide. “Awesome.”
For some students the struggle and sense of not (yet) understanding is a huge challenge. They’d prefer to be working with the more familiar, questions that have a single answer, experiences more contained. My admiration for the students who push through this discomfort, who learn to suspend disbelief, is great. My appreciation for the teachers who inspire this growth is profound.
I’m not a mechanical guy. I have a toolbox, but not the inclination to tinker much on my own. My wrestling match with the Hoover was inspired by necessity: I was going to get that Gryffindor tie. And while I didn’t (yet) have it, I understood why I was doing what I was doing, and this clarity helped fuel my work.
Henry, interested in the parts and process, was more than willing to sacrifice the tie for the experience. He wasn’t motivated by the end product of a costume tie; he wanted to peek inside the vacuum and see how it worked.
We were both motivated, however, and both had context for what we were learning. Neither of us were following any established directions; we were exploring, experimenting, and struggling. I gritted my teeth, unsure of the outcome. Henry focused and had fun.
We’re different that way, and I realized (as I was restraining him from trying to take the entire vacuum apart on his own) that if I paid attention to the spirit he brought to the work, I could learn a lot from our collaboration.
I finally freed the tie, wrapped as tight as a cord by the vacuum, and, disappointed, started to throw it away. I stopped when my wife stepped into the room and said: “They can still play with that. They love it.”
She was right, of course, though Henry was just as interested in watching me do my best to reassemble the machine. So I put the vacuum back together, a little wiser than when I’d started, and certainly more interesting to my son, and I gave a silent thanks for the visit to Hogwarts.