Monthly Archives: January 2010

Letters From Birmingham Jail, An English Lesson

As my instructor handed me the reading assignment for the day, I glanced quickly at the title and set it on the desk in front of me. “Excerpts of Letters From Birmingham Jail” it read. Hmm…a love letter? I wondered.  She asked the class to read it and decide if it was a good example of a compare and contrast essay.  I read it once, quickly, and couldn’t tell, so I began reading it again.  

Quick side note:  When I read something, I can’t help but try to re-write what the author is trying to say.  Not to be critical, I just like to imagine how I would have worded the same idea.  

So, while re-reading the essay, I tried to really pay attention and see if there was anything I would change, at this point feeling silly that I had assumed it a love letter.  After a paragraph or two, I realized that there was nothing.  It was beautifully written, and the arguments perfectly and eloquently made.  It was also a perfect example of what the instructor was trying to demonstrate. 

I was still reading when the instructor asked for comments about the piece, and a few students raised their hands and voiced opinions.  She would smile, and ask for another.  Meanwhile, although not quite finished with my second time through, I raised my hand.  Now, saying what I want to say in an intelligible fashion is quite rare, and I was true to form.  I stammered and stuttered and finally just said “It’s perfect!”

“Yes, I too like Dr. Kings writing.”  was her response.

Dr. King, Dr. King, who’s Dr. King?!  I know I should know who that is!  I thought to myself, later relieved that no one can mind read.  I looked at the essay again- Hmm, Birmingham jail, Birmingham, Alabama?  What other Birmingham would it be?  So, the south.  Lets see- I looked back at the paper-  Just. Unjust.  And then:  Are you kidding me?!  Dr. Martin Luther King!  How could I not know that!  I tried to think of when I had learned about Dr. King, and to my shock, I don’t think I ever had!  Not one time could I recall ever learning anything about him in any of my classes anywhere!  Here I was, a year away from a bachelors degree, and I had never been formally educated about him.   I regret that I had  not taken it upon myself earlier in life to gain an understanding of the civil rights movement. 

Today, I am glad to be remembering Dr. King and what he stood for.

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Little did I know! Or… Know What You Don’t Know

Back in the spring of 1992, I was a senior in high school and anxiously looking forward to the day I would graduate.  It was also time to look for a summer job, and I had no idea what I wanted to do.  Well, really I was hoping that folks would just start calling and asking me for advice- about anything- and I could tell them what I thought and send them a bill for my knowledge and time.  I did, after all, know everything!  I waited in vain, however, and at length decided to actually job hunt.

I had taken a number of wood shop classes, and somehow managed to impress my instructor, so when he heard I was searching for a job he hooked me up with a few interviews in the construction industry.  I was uninterested!  I went reluctantly to the interviews, and I know it showed by the amount of job offers I received.  Zero.  Although, grateful for my instructors recommendations, I didn’t even feel guilty about my poor showing.  I knew, however, I didn’t want to do fast food or retail, so when a general contractor in my neighborhood offered me a job as a laborer, I felt compelled to take it.   My life was placed on an unexpected crash course with destiny.

At first, I hated my job!  It was hard work, and I was either too hot, or nearly frozen, and sometimes both simultaneously.  I’m not sure how it happened, but in time I grew to love it.  I worked for that general contractor for seven years, and from him learned the ins and outs of the construction industry.  Everything from the trades we did, to the inner workings of running a construction business. 

He was also good at fostering humility, and at pointing out that I didn’t, in fact, know it all.  At the time it hurt but, as I have grown older, recognizing what I do and don’t know has saved me thousands of dollars and countless wasted hours.  Which brings me to the point of this whole thing.

Know what you know, but mostly know what you don’t know.

That has become a bit of a mantra for me, and a little joke I have with myself when I find myself out of my realm, or notice others stepping out of theirs.  Don’t get me wrong here, I am all for learning new things, but…

In front of a selection of power tools the other day, a husband and wife stood and stared wide-eyed at an assortment of saw-dust-producing machines and wondered out loud which one would be the best for them to purchase.  While deciding, they continually referred to a previous conversation with someone who had told them to watch for this, that, or the other while purchasing tools.  That line from Star Wars when Ol’ Ben Kenobi rebukes Han Solo for calling him a fool kept running through my head.  “Who’s the more foolish, the fool, or the fool who follows the fool?”  This poor couple had no idea what they were doing, and were trying to follow the advice of someone who didn’t know what he/she didn’t know. 

One of the helpful store associates finally approached, and I felt relieved of my obligation to say something.  It quickly returned, however, as I listened from around the corner at the ignorance being spewed from the associates mouth.  Now the couple was completely confused, and I was again feeling a moral obligation to teach the truth.  Just as I was about to intervene, another customer pulled the associate away with another question, and left me alone with the dazed couple. 

As tactfully as possible, I tried to find out how much the couple knew about tools, and basement finishing in general, since that was the reason for the purchase.  They were excited to show off their knowledge, so they regurgitated all sorts of useless and contradictory information picked up from who knows where.  I just smiled as it became very clear that they felt that they had done lots of homework about finishing basements, and that they were anxious to get started.  That old desire to give advice came flooding back, but I resisted- mostly.

After offering a few words of encouragement, and teaching the difference between this tool and that tool, I bid them farewell, and wished them the best.  I just cringe, however, knowing that once they have finished their basement, they will view themselves as “experts” and share the same wrong information with those that may seek their advice.  I can hear it all now:  “Well, when I finished my basement, I…”

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Wow!

It has been a while!  More to come very soon!

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