The Inspiration for “Green-Lights”

It happened a couple of times. The first time was annoying. The second time was downright frustrating.


Do you travel the same way to work every day? My school is only about six miles from my home. There are a couple of ways to get there. While I vary my route from time to time, no matter the path, there will be several intersections with traffic lights.

As I reflect on it, there are a few that I can count on turning red, but those I have devised either turning right or checking email on my phone. Eliminating down time, I don’t feel a hint of pain, waiting for the light to turn. One or two pauses in the hurry to work doesn’t hurt. For the most part, I am usually traveling in the direction that affords most traffic lights to be green, most of the time. 

One morning in the spring of 2019, I was on my way to work, and every single traffic light was turning red right just as I got to it. Was someone messing with me? Although I had plenty of time to get to school without being late, the annoyance of being held up was acute. Having already checked my email (several times), I felt the vacuum of down time; wasted time; robbed time! These lights were stealing my productivity from me. Just the kind of thing to make me see red.

 

It wasn’t more than a couple of weeks later that the same thing happened again! I’ve been driving these roads for nine years, and never had this many red lights to sit through. What was going on? It was like the planets aligned, and they hated me! 

 

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What if your whole life felt like one red light after another?

During one of these red lights, it hit me: This feeling of frustration is what some people feel all of the time! While I generally expect things to go just fine for me, there are people who experience trials and conflict at every single intersection of life. This got me thinking about how ignorant people like me are. I use the word ignorant in the literal, “Not knowing” sense. And, I am the guy coasting down the green-lit road. What if this tiny feeling of frustration that I experienced for only a moment, and then it was over, and I had a great day, was a prolonged, every-single-day, all-day-long feeling?

 

What if I teach students who experience this feeling? Everything they try to do is wrong. Even if it isn’t true, they might feel like they can ONLY make mistakes! What if they come from a household where nothing is ever good enough? What about the families who can’t get a break? Would a child that comes to school from such a family see life differently than one whose family is financially successful? I think so. What about health?


I almost understood my ignorance once before. When I was in college, I ran my own College Pro Painting business, and it was extremely successful. I won a medal, even… “Rookie of the Year”! 

I remember this like it was yesterday: Before winning the medal, during the height of my most successful time of the summer, when I had several crews pumping out high-quality, prosperous production, I was finishing up the evening’s estimates and feeling good about landing several of them. A couple realizations swept over me. 

The first one came from my reflecting on all that I had done. The summer before this one I had risen from a first-time painter to goal-driven, successful foreman on a painting crew. My leadership was so powerful that I pushed my tiny crew of three to shatter our manager’s expectations time and time again; To the point where he practically begged his boss to interview me for a managerial position the next year.

This boss did give me a go. The interview process was severe, but I got hired. Next, I underwent several weekend training sessions that taught me how to run my own business. 

Now, I was driving around an old Dodge cargo van that I had paid for with my own money; money that I had gotten as deposits on painting work that would be completed that summer. This was my first vehicle! Before beginning the marketing season, that spring, I didn’t have more than a couple hundred dollars in my bank account. I was selling clothing at a retail store in the King of Prussia Mall a couple times a week for minimum wage, plus commission that barely covered my travel expenses. 

This was my junior year of college. I was 20 years old. I had been dating a girl whom I whole-heartedly expected to marry for about a year and a half. The week before finals she dumped me. She did NOT say, “It isn’t you; it’s me.” She had been preparing to tour with a drama team during the summer that I would be pioneering this painting business. The leader of that team was very funny, popular, and attractive. “Bye, Matt.” 

traffic-lights-15289837432tbThis devastated me. I don’t remember if it came before or after the breakup, but at some point this girl had said to me, “I’m afraid you won’t be successful.” Where this came from, I don’t have a clue. I had hit the ground running, and HAD already experienced quite a bit of success, booking more work early on than anyone else in the district.

Being dumped made it pretty awkward to borrow my ex’s car to do estimates. I began borrowing a friend’s old jalopy. Uncle Buck’s car had nothing on this rolling, sputtering, brown boat of a car! But, this did not dissuade customers from agreeing to have me and my painting crews paint the outside of their houses! Eventually, I saved up enough in deposits to buy my van. I used deposit money to buy painting equipment and put advertisements for college students looking for summer work in the local newspapers. (They were paper back then!) Deposit money was used to pay for direct mailing that the corporate painting umbrella company College Pro Painting put together and mailed for me. All I had to do was tell the company how many bundles and where to send them, then pay for it. 

I followed College Pro Painting’s training to a T, and added my own passion, coupled with persistent energy. It proved to be a recipe for success. In the afternoon, after classes, I would drive over to my “turf” and go door to door, asking people if they wanted a free estimate for exterior painting or “Would you mind if I placed a lawn sign on your lawn?” My pitch was simple and sincere: “Hi, my name is Matt, and I’m a college student trying to start my own painting business in your town.” This message was incredibly well-received. I was well-received. I was able to place lawn signs on the lawns of houses covered in vinyl siding that sat on main thoroughfares. Also, I was able to conduct and land all kinds of jobs. I hustled. I took any job; none was too small or big or difficult or easy. 

One last thing before I move on from this success-story: Two of the 20 or so people that I hired to work for me during that award-winning summer were college students who had painted the year before. Not only that, but they had worked for a College Pro Painting manager like me, so they knew the ropes. These two proved to be the spine of my business. The one with a little more spunk was made foreman of the crew, and I left his buddy on his crew. This last act was probably one of the best decisions I made that summer. You’d think that splitting them up, and making each a foreman of competing crews might have been more profitable. The camaraderie these two shared helped them absolutely love what they did that summer… That and the totally awesome bonus money that they earned! 

So, I’m sitting in my van in the middle of my successful summer thinking back on my humble beginnings, tragic rejection, and hard work. I’m finally feeling the emotional fruits of all of this success, and I think to myself…

If I can do this, anyone can. Why don’t more people start their own business and experience success the way I did?

Typing this thought makes me cough inside; Like, I feel like I am punching myself in the gut! My only consolation is the next thought came fast:

Wait a minute. NOT everyone CAN do this. 

When I thought this last idea, it was not with hubris. It was a realization that I was lucky. If I had bought this van I sat in with “my own money”, it was only after having been trained in how to acquire that money. Also, the people who entrusted this money to me believed that I would provide the painting that I promised. Would they trust anyone? No. 

Part of my drive that summer was due to proving my ex-girlfriend’s fears wrong. Does everyone have that going for them? Would I wish those painful feelings onto other people? Of course not.

Sure, the area where I ran my painting business was what the business called a “Pioneer Turf”, in that no College Pro Painting manager had worked there before, but College Pro Painting was far from a pioneer business! My customers had the assurance of me working for a company that had successfully trained and operated student-managed painting businesses for over 25 years! 

Lastly, having two guys who already knew how to paint and how the College Pro Painting system worked was gold! While they produced work, I trained other painters. I had them train painters. Success bred success, and everyone was happy to be working on a winning team.

traffic-lights-438806_960_720.jpgI may have had a couple of hiccups along the way, but my van and I had driven through green light after green light, picking up speed as we went.

Years after this college experience I heard the phrase “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps”. It seemed to make sense. Take what you’ve been given and make something of yourself. At the time, that’s what I thought I’d done. I did not understand that other people and situations and unearned personal talents/abilities were like a jetpack lifting me the moment I touched my boots

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Where are the bootstraps?

I’ve done a little research on this phrase. It is more than just a little ironic. It  was used as a put down, suggesting that someone was delusional, for how could you lift yourself from yourself? (Alvarez, 2015) Not only was it an insult, but originally to use the term “Bootstrapping” was to make fun of people who thought that others could be successful from nothing! 

I don’t think that it is classy to make fun of anyone. I will say that I felt a little silly, when I realized my own flawed thinking about personal success. When I sat through one of several red lights on my way to work that fateful morning mentioned at the beginning of this blog, all of this flooded my psyche. If it were even possible to “Lift yourself up by your bootstraps,” some people’s straps snap. Other people don’t even have boots! This got me thinking about a better metaphor: Traffic lights. 

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What have been your experiences with privilege and inequity?

Now that you know where the ideas for “Green Lights” came from, how might it be interpreted? What parallels to teaching and life can you make? Who is sitting at red lights? What can be done to help them? Will it hurt the person driving down the main road with all of the green lights? Is that appropriate? Who is the jaywalker? Who was driving the Ford Crown Vic that had an accident? The elderly person? I challenge you to look for literary easter eggs. What does it mean to you?

Sources:

Alvarez, S. (2015, April 7). Where does the phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” actually come from? Retrieved January 5, 2020, from https://stateofopportunity.michiganradio.org/post/where-does-phrase-pull-yourself-your-bootstraps-actually-come.

Green-Lights: An Analogy Exploring inEquity

A person driving home has to go through the city. While he usually takes the turnpike to avoid traffic, he needs to stop at a store in center-city to make a purchase. On his way to the middle of town this driver is pleasantly surprised to find every single traffic light green. He doesn’t even have to slow down once. This causes him to wonder whether paying the tolls to take the turnpike home everyday are even worth it! 

In the specialty store where the man must make a purchase, there is a very long line at the single open register. He contemplates coming back later, but decides to at least scout out the items under the glass counter. A sales clerk asks the man if he needs some help. While he is there and now getting some personal attention, he might as well find out the specific prices of the items he’s interested in buying! 

“Yes, may I please see these two items up close?” he asks. Upon closer examination, the man makes his final decision to buy his favorite. The sales clerk chooses to ring the man out right then and there. Neither of the two people engaged in this encounter pay any attention to the lengthy line at the other register that has doubled since this sale began.

How lucky I am, the man thinks to himself, as he gets back into his vehicle to continue his trip home. As he coasts through more green lights, he might hear a hint of a remembrance of someone from the store he just left mentioning the irregularity of the traffic lights today. Why ponder good fortune? he dismissively wonders right before noticing an elderly woman stepping onto a crosswalk.

Our driver slams on the breaks, producing a small screech of his tires. Between the sound and his waving, the old woman realizes the driver is intent on letting her cross. She does so very slowly. With each new vehicle forced to stop behind the Good Samaritan, his feeling of importance grows. I made it possible for an elderly individual to have safe passage across this treacherous road, he muses. The feeling of power is heightened when he allows the now long line of traffic to begin moving again. 

Wait! Someone else is getting ready to jump into the road! They are not on a crosswalk, though. Also, they are clearly nimble enough to jog across at a natural break in traffic, the driver assesses. And, the conclusion is to give the jaywalker a warning toot of the horn, while weaving a little to ensure there is plenty of space between the pedestrian and vehicle. With an additional silent internal warning of following the rules and heading patience, our driver dismisses all further thought of the incident. 

imagesHad he sat through a rotation of red lights when allowing the elderly person to cross the road? How could every traffic light still be green? the driver wonders as he continues home. There are dozens of green dots dangling from dark metal branches for miles, ahead. They would look like a gloomy green airplane runway, if it weren’t for the buildings lining each side of the boulevard! 

Luckily, the road is plenty wide enough for our driver to swerve out of the way of a small fender-bender. It doesn’t look like anyone was seriously hurt, our driver notices as he slowly passes. The hit car must have tried making an illegal right on red, when there wasn’t quite enough clearance, our driver concludes. The city can be a treacherous place to travel. Perhaps the turnpike is safer. No one pulls out in front of you speeding along on the turnpike

110927-F-GK203-018.jpgIt isn’t until this lucky driver gets safely home and turns on the news that he remembers seeing some of the faces of people sitting at red-lights on the side streets. Coasting through green-light after green-light, our driver turned from time to time, glancing at the cars waiting for their chance to enter this magical thoroughfare. They looked angry and irritated. Come to find out, the road our driver had traveled had been victim to a traffic light malfunction. As it turned out, his drive home really had been magical; The lights hadn’t changed for over an hour. It just so happened that he turned onto the road that had been broken in his favor right when the lights became stuck on green. His brief stop in the store hadn’t been long enough for him to escape this lucky coincidence! He drove all the way home, before city workers fixed the lights, and travelers on side streets could safely exit their parked prisons!

Some couldn’t escape. There were vehicles that ran out of gas, engines continuing to run in hopes that the light would turn green at any moment. These clogged the narrow side streets as others honked at them, trying to get around. Additional fender-benders occurred. Pedestrians jumped to the steps of buildings as vehicles hopped the curb and drove on sidewalks. 

None of this was reported on the news. A more important story about a business merger had captured the headlines. Our driver will never learn about the fate of the fender-bender he’d passed during his green-light adventure. A Ford Crown Victoria that was driven by a man who grew up delivering giant cubes of ice, cut from a pond in Northern Maine’s freezing cold winter for summer iceboxes, the first refrigerators, had experienced a heart attack. His soon to be widow was driving him to the hospital, because they thought that they couldn’t afford an ambulance. In his childhood, they would have harnessed horses and sleighed across town, snow hiding all traces of road and property boundaries. Now, one desperate right on a red light found them trapped in a lengthy waiting period while police officers interrogate the other driver. Was he drunk? Driving without insurance? A wanted man? Who knows?

Our lucky driver does remember this green-light adventure one more time. There is a day when he ventures into the city for an errand. Sitting in bumper to bumper traffic, he sees a pedestrian skipping through cars to cross the street. The frustrated driver thinks back to the jaywalker he didn’t allow to pass. Oh, to be free to run around the streets, our temporarily-stuck driver thinks to himself. 

But, how free is he, really?

Card Games Can Be Controversially Classy

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Who do you think won?

Thanksgiving night 2019 my daughter Scarlet, wife Sonia, and I all sat down to play a game together. Scarlet was interested in learning Cribbage. This is a card game where players move tiny pegs that stand in holes drilled into a wooden board. Each players’ line of holes goes to 150 points. You leapfrog the pegs, so that one keeps the place of the previous accumulation of points, while the other counts out the new total. The player to get her pegs to the finish first, wins. 

I wasn’t sure how Scarlet would do with this game of many rules. There were many firsts: I taught Scarlet how to shuffle the deck. She did pretty good. I showed her how to deal the cards. Then there were the instructions of how to play.

Cribbage is all about points, and there are many ways to earn them. One of the ways to earn points is to form groupings of cards whose combined value total 15. When I witnessed Scarlet, who just turned 8 one week ago, working out the different combinations of 15, I was not only impressed with her math skills. It hit me that she was analyzing the cards and evaluating the future potential they held. 

This is a little tricky to communicate via text. Without describing the entire game, let me try to convey what Scarlet had to think about when it came to the 15s. It takes several rounds to accumulate 150 points and win a game of Cribbage. Each round begins with all of the (3) players getting 5 cards. The first thing that you do is try to decide which 4 cards you keep, for you are to give up one of them. It can be a challenging decision to make. 

See, you don’t just record the points represented in your hand. You play your cards against opponents’ cards. And then, there is a starter card that you use over and over, too. Finally, there is a crib that goes to the dealer. This is what you contribute to when you discard a card at the beginning of the round. If you’re not the dealer, you don’t want to place cards into the crib that will easily form combinations of 15, giving your opponent more points. 

IMG_2915So, it’s Thanksgiving. The dinner is cooked, consumed, and cleaned up. I’m watching my daughter wrestle with the cards in her hand. Of the five she is holding, which should she throw in the crib for someone else to use? 

Sometimes it is simple. The starter is a five, and you have three face cards (valued at 10, each), a five, and a four. Throwing the four into someone else’s crib is a no-brainer. It won’t make any points for you. How many different combinations of 15 are you looking at without the four? Try working it out.

The answer is six different combinations of 15 can be formed (3 combinations using your “5” + 3 face cards & 3 combinations using the starter card which is a “5” + your 3 face cards). What if rather than a five, you had an Ace (valued at one in Cribbage)? Now you have 3 face cards worth ten each, an Ace, and a four. And, don’t forget the starter, which is a five. If you give away one of your face cards, you would have four combinations of 15. If you gave away the four this time, you would only have three fifteens: Your 3 face cards, combined with the starter. 

IMG_4017It’s extra hard when you have to add the numbers to make fifteen. Let’s say the five cards that you are dealt are 4, 5, 6, 3, & Ace, and the starter is an 8. You have to discard one of those cards to someone else’s crib. 

  • Ace, 3, 6, 5 = 15
  • 4, 6, 5 = 15
  • Ace, 6, 8 = 15
  • 3, 4, 8 = 15

Am I missing any? It takes time and is pretty tricky finding all of the combinations. You can’t overlap any, using the same grouping in a different order. 

As I’m sure you can imagine, this is great for developing number sense. It also helps grow critical thinking skills. Scarlet was doing all of this math in her head. Once in a while, she would ask for some help. We worked through all of the different combinations to make the best decision possible. She ended up winning, surprise/surprise! 

What struck me most about this experience was the inner conflict centered on deciding which card you would choose to relinquish to the crib each round. I knew this to be an important part of the game, but watching my daughter wrestle with the decision, round after round, brought new light to the fact. With practice, she got better and more confident at choosing the card that she would let go. 

The inner conflict of choosing the best cards to keep and which to get rid of reminded me of using controversy in the classroom. Making topics controversial by providing students with opposing, nearly equal in value concepts that they must analyze and evaluate to decide which is better or more appropriate for a given situation would develop the skill of critical thinking. Cribbage could be a great way to grow this higher order thinking skill, while also developing number sense. 

This got me thinking about other card games. How might a teaching style be analogous to these card games:

“Go Fish” — Students ask for information. If you know it, you hand it over. If you don’t, the students fish for it online (ask Siri). What are students learning when you use this style of teaching? Education is a take/receive, skill-less process. During the card game, only conflict comes in deciding how honest you want to be;) The controversy lies solely in morals. 

“Rummy” — Players work at making connections between like cards. They collect as many pairs, three & four of a kind, and make runs. The player who has accumulated the greatest value in cards at the end of play, wins. Analogy to teaching: Making connections is great! Each time you find two like ideas, you group them in your head. You categorize thoughts and store them away. Furthering this game’s message, however; If you’ve played this game much, you’ve probably learned that runs are where the play is. You can play one of your cards off of someone else’s run. You only get the points that your card is valued, but at least you get to play it! This symbolizes a group or team-learning approach. Students must decide which information they want to keep, and which to discard. This decision will be based on how valuable it could be in the future or how useful it is right now. A potential drawback to this approach is that it teaches students that the kid with the most knowledge in the end wins at life. 

“Poker” — Kids play this when they try to get away with not completing assignments that they think won’t be checked or graded. The lesson students learn from this teaching style: Life is all about tricking people into thinking you are smarter than you really are, have more knowledge about something than you really do, and/or are able so do something when really you are truly incompetent. 

“War” — Without consciously choosing, each player places the top card from their pile face up. Highest card value wins all. When there are ties, War ensues, and only one winner gets tons of cards. This is the opposite of equitable teaching. You teach everyone the same, period; Zero differentiation. Some kids greatly benefit. Everyone else plays along, losing in the end. It should be stated that early on in War, one person begins accumulating the aces and face cards. The other player(s) know that they are going to lose… Unless, they cheat. And, even then, it is hard to come back when you don’t know what card your opponent is playing. 

“Solitaire” — “Go practice what I taught you.” Players become familiar with the cards and some relationships between them. They may practice shuffling. An element of racing a time could make this game more challenging, but you might as well be marooned on a literal island! 

The thing is, we use each of these styles in our teaching. As teachers, we cannot assess everything, and sometimes we have to use a poker face. Sometimes we need to have students play quietly on their own, and there are times when it is good for a kid to repeat the same action over and over, in solitary practice. When a student does not know the definition of a vocabulary word in the middle of a lesson, it is appropriate for them to

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Black Friday found me ordering some Cribbage sets for my classroom.

ask, and there are other times when we tell them to “go fish” for it in their text. Everyday, all day long, students are making connections, building relationships between concepts and accumulating knowledge. Hopefully, there isn’t too much “Rummy” being called out in your classroom;)

When the profession of teaching seems to be swimming in data and everything seems like a numbers game, I suggest injecting life into it by making a topic controversial: Give it an element of inner conflict through pitting two or more opposing ideas against one another. This will require some creative thinking on your part, but the critical thinking through cognitive productive struggle that students will be engaged in will far outweigh the work you put into it. Good luck, and let me know what you do and how it goes through tagging me and my research partner James Norman on Twitter and/or using #ControversyCanBeClassy when posting. Also, feel free to leave a comment, here;)