A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Monday, April 18, 2011

I'll Be A Hornswaggled Mule

Inez Neal was my ninth grade algebra teacher.  When I had Mrs. Neal's class in 1970, she was already a veteran teacher.  It surely took someone of great inner resolve to teach algebra to reluctant ninth graders, and Mrs. Neal was obviously such a person.  She was demanding but fair, qualities that are essential to any excellent teacher.  She was all business for the most part; although she did allow herself the luxury of a bottle of Dr. Pepper which she kept on her desk for occasional sips, much to the chagrin of her thirsty pupils.

Occasionally, Mrs. Neal would demonstrate a problem on the board, carefully explaining the steps as she worked them out.  She would meticulously explain exactly what she was doing and why, going slow enough for us to copy the steps down as she worked them out.  Then, at that penultimate moment when she reached the final step, before she wrote down the answer, she would turn to face the class and ask us to state the final answer to the problem.  This completely reasonable request would most often be met with silence.  A look of shock would fall upon Mrs. Neal's face.  She would then begin to call on individual students to state the answer.  This would also result in blank stares, and more silence.  Mrs. Neal, exasperated, would then lay her piece of chalk on her desk and, nearly in a state of collapse, would remark, "Well...I'll be a hornswaggled mule!"

None of us knew exactly what a hornswaggled mule was, but to a person we knew it was a condition to be avoided.  Mrs. Neal, after her pronouncement, would somehow summon the strength to pick her chalk back up, turn, and would, with the resolve of a heavyweight contender answering the bell and going back for another round against Muhammad Ali, return to the board and work another problem. 

Somehow, against all odds, Mrs. Neal managed to teach us algebra.  And she also managed to build a relationship with each of us.  We knew she meant business, and we knew we couldn't go into her classroom and goof off, because we respected her.  She was fair, and she had high expectations of us, and we did our best to meet those expectations.

Another memorable teacher we had back in junior high was Harlan Hawkins.  Mr. Hawkins was our seventh grade science teacher.  On the first day of class, he told us a very profound thing.  He said that if someone came in and told him he needed to eat a bale of hay, he would do it.  But, he said, no one could  sit down and eat a bale of hay all at once.  However, if you fixed a plate, and put some roast beef, and corn, and mashed potatoes and gravy, and put a couple of strands of the hay in with the mashed potatoes, you could probably eat that with no problem.  Then, if you did that every day, and ate just a few strands of hay at a time, by the end of the year you would have finished off the entire bale of hay.  That, he said, was the approach we were going to take to what we needed to learn in science that year.

I also remember a little science demonstration that we did.  Mr. Hawkins had a little hand crank generator, the kind with the crank attached to a copper coil that spins inside a set of horseshoe magnets when you crank it, generating a weak electrical current.  He had the entire class form a circle, holding hands, with two people touching both contacts on the generator.  As Mr. Hawkins cranked the generator, we felt a tingle as the tiny electrical current passed through our bodies from one person to the next.  We understood electrical circuits because we were one!

Years later, when I myself was a science teacher, I tried the same demonstration.  I had a little generator like Mr. Hawkins', but mine had a light bulb at the end which you could light up by cranking the generator.  As I was showing this to my students, I remembered Mr. Hawkins' demonstration.  So, I had the students get in a circle, had the two at the ends to touch the contact points on the generator, and I slowly cranked.  "Do you feel anything?"  I asked my students.  "No," they replied in unison.  I knew I was generating come current, because the light bulb was lighting up.  So, I cranked a bit more forcefully.  "Now?" I asked.  "No, still nothing."   So, I cranked with all my strength.  "How...about...now?"  I inquired between breaths.  The students, bored and losing interest, again replied in the negative.

Then it occurred to me what might be the problem.  Mr. Hawkins' generator didn't have a light bulb.  Maybe that bulb was using up so much of the juice I was generating, there was nothing left to complete the "human" circuit.  I removed the light bulb and persuaded my bored and no longer interested students to join hands again.  I gave the generator a hearty one-fourth turn crank.

The sound of 25 eleven-year-olds screaming in unison is a rather jarring sound.  It's the kind of sound that gets your attention, that makes your brain stop and say, "Hey, pause, figure this out."  It's the kind of sound that will make a person stop in mid-crank.  Fortunately, that's what I did.  My little generator was working fine now.  Quite effectively, in fact.  My students, trusting little ones that they were, thought the shock was planned and were actually quite impressed.  They didn't know that I was actually hoping for a much less impressive experience.

After about 40 years, I finally googled "hornswaggled."  It means to trick or confuse.  Oh my, I can think of a lot of times in the past 40 years when I must have been in a "hornswaggled" condition.  But those are stories for another day; right now, I'm still working on polishing off my bale of hay.

1 comment:

  1. Inez Neal was my great aunt and I played cards with her up in Waldron at a family reunion back in 1984 when I was twelve years old - I recall her saying this very expression when she was losing the game (Spite and Malice was the game) - which she didn't appreciate at all! Thanks for this post.