I used to be The Answer Man. “Go ask O’Connor” was what they used to say around school. I even got stuck with nicknames like “Dr. Factoid” and “Mr. O’Google.” This was a cultivated effort. I made a point to learn everything. If students asked about something I was unfamiliar with I spent that night and as many others as I needed getting up to speed on whatever they wanted to know. It’s ultimately futile to try to know everything, but that didn’t stop me. I was The Answer Man. Teachers love answers because all day long they get questions. Most of the questions are ones the students can answer for themselves, but daily I would get questions that were authentic. That is, they weren’t entirely answerable. I lived for those. I liked figuring out how to frame the “answer” so that the student could see how rich their question was. Science, my primary field, is filled with answers like that. You can talk about what is known and what is unknown, what is more certain and what is less certain, but you can’t always give a definitive reply.
The capital of Mongolia is Ulan Bator. That was a running joke with me and my students. They all had to know that. My point was lost on them, I think. I wanted them to see that isolated factoids like that are meaningless. Unless it’s the Final Jeopardy question, of course! But so much of school is regurgitating factoids and I think that’s mostly pointless. I’m great at that sort of superficial knowledge mostly because I have a good memory. I encounter these tidbits when I’m learning about other things. I have to go back again and again to the big ideas and the deep concepts because they are hard and require that sort of effort. Along the way the bits and pieces stick to my brain like lint on velcro.
Teenagers are easily impressed. Toss out some cool facts and use big words and they think you are smart. I speak well and I’m articulate in front of a crowd. Mix that with my command of cultural arcana, my love of language and history, and my basic need to show off, and my students thought I was a genius. It wasn’t hard. Like I said, teenagers are easily impressed. While it is nice to be thought of well by your charges, that wasn’t really my goal. Sure, everyone likes to get their ego stroked, but that wasn’t my main motivation. I wanted to learn as much as I could because I thought that I might have to teach it someday. I wanted to be prepared to work with any student at any level at any time. Over the course of thirty years in the classroom I certainly did work with an enormous variety of individuals in a multiplicity of settings. And I tried out every kind of teaching and learning schemes I could come up with or steal from someone else. Teachers, god bless ’em, are notorious thieves. Anything you see done by another teacher that seems to work you take it and call it your own. It’s a survival skill.
But I didn’t know everything. It just seemed like I did because I relished the role. I loved being The Answer Man. It was a way to connect with and engage as many students as I could. I wanted to find something, even if it was entirely trivial, that I could share with a student so that he or she would feel connected. Ultimately students learn better when they feel a part of things and believe that the teacher is interested in them. And I was interested! The world is filled with amazing things and I learned so much over the years just by listening.
That was the secret—I listened. I assumed everyone else was an expert at something. And I love experts. I pick the brains of everyone I meet because I know they know all kinds of cool stuff. Stuff I would never have sought out on my own. So much of the knowledge I passed on to kids I learned from other kids! I’m also a voracious reader and will read almost anything. That’s such an easy way to learn. Students would always look at me in awe and ask “how do you know that?” and get frustrated when I said “I read it in a book.” They thought there was some magic elixir that would make them smarter or that I had some special gift they didn’t have and seemed disappointed when I showed them how easy it was to gain knowledge for themselves.
My dad loved to bullshit with people. He had a way of asking people about themselves that made them open up. Consequently he picked up a lot of things just sitting in a bar and listening to some guy go on about real estate, or vintage cars, or hunting, or whatnot. If it was something he didn’t do or didn’t know about he found out by letting people talk about their passion. I’m the same way. I got that from the old man.
In the end, it was just a job. A gig. A role, like an actor. Half of teaching is acting. My part was The Answer Man. I loved the part and played it to the hilt. It took lots of research and rehearsal. My brother is an actor and I know how much preparation he does for his parts. It was the same for me. I skimped on the mundane stuff like lesson planning and correcting papers and put more of my energy into learning. I wanted to know the material I taught but I also wanted to embellish it and flesh it out and so be able to connect it to all the other things in the world. It led to a number of spectacular discussions in class, I must say. We covered some ground! I miss that. The talks I had with students, whether in class or out, the whole class or small groups, were priceless. I’m not sure I remember the substance of any of them, just that they always started with seemingly innocent, simple questions. Naturally the students came to know that they could avoid the day’s “boring” lesson by getting me off task with a good question, and they often conspired to do so. Silly fools, they wound up learning more that way!