Monday, April 18, 2011
I'll Be A Hornswaggled Mule
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.
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.