Maybe We Can
Lifelong Lesson from a High School Experience
Can we blow up our history teacher’s car? Maybe by remote control? That’s what my high school friend asked. He was under pressure from his father to get A’s in all his courses but this teacher seemed likely to give him a C or possibly a B no matter how hard he worked.
I told my friend that we could do it. But, no. I would not do it or talk about it any more. I made gunpowder once. I drilled a tiny hole in the side of a pipe, filled the pipe with gunpowder, and carefully screwed a cap with wetted threads onto the top. Inserted a piece of fuse into the tiny hole and took it to an open field. Then I detonated it with a remote and it scared the hell out of me. It made a hole in the ground and blew shrapnel all over. I realized that I was a kid and had little knowledge about this and no experience. I knew that I could do serious damage to myself and others. That was the first and last time I would play with explosives.
I asked my friend if he understood that he was talking about probably injuring another person. We might scare this teacher but what would be the consequences, even if it just damaged his car and didn’t hurt him? My friend would not only give up his A but would be thrown out of school and into jail, and he would take me with him. I strongly recommended he find something positive to help him get his A or maybe learn to live with a lower grade in this one instance.
After a few days, he asked me for ideas. I suggested that we approach our teacher and ask if there was anything we could do to get better grades than we could just doing the regular class work. I added that we should tell him that we were both willing to work hard and that we were not trying to get out of anything — just the opposite.
My friend agreed. We approached our teacher after class and made our proposal. He thought about it for a few minutes, keeping us anxiously guessing. I was afraid that he would give us both F’s because he thought we were trying to somehow bribe him. This guy was a veteran of the US Army Ski Patrol in Alaska in the 1950’s. He was a rather gruff and demanding character. He often referred to our class as a bunch of wimpy, lazy and spoiled kids. He used fear as the primary motivator.
To our surprise, he told us he had a project that would take a lot of work. It would involve studying at the Chicago Public Library. It would also require many, many hours of careful work and learning about international politics. We lived in a small town about 40 miles from Chicago and hardly ever travelled to the city except with family. Neither of us had our driver’s license yet, so we would take Amtrak (Burlington Northern in those days).
This sounded mysterious but was better than being accused of a bribe. He told us that we could get A’s if our work was outstanding. He confided in us that he was working on his masters degree at night and needed research that was very difficult for him to do with his teaching job and family. He outlined how we could create files for each country on a list he provided and scan certain articles in every Time Magazine for a period of years which he specified for these countries. We would end up with several file boxes filled with folders for each country. These would contain articles for each country which we photocopied.
We agreed and made our plan.
It would involve trips to Chicago each weekend and working together at home for at least two nights each week.
We made our first trip and discovered that the cost of making copies of articles would be prohibitive. This was before Xerox became popular. We would literally need to make photocopies on a machine in the library that was shared by everyone in the city that was using the place. It was not the way to go long-term. We made our copies that first day and immediately began exploring alternatives.
We didn’t arrive at any. Our project was frozen after just starting. We approached our teacher for suggestions. He grumbled and told us that we were looking like the rest of the class — lazy kids. He reminded us that our grades would reflect our performance on this special project. We had asked for it and now we were saying we couldn’t get past the first week. Not acceptable!
But we didn’t back down. We told him that we were willing to do the work but simply didn’t have any experience at handling problems like this. He told us that he couldn’t give us money for the copying. He would if he could, but his budget was too tight. He suggested an adventure. We could cold call to reach a manager at Time, Inc., in Chicago and request back issues that we could keep. If they agreed, we could cut the articles out of the magazines and paste them onto notebook paper which we would file just as we planned to do with the copies from the library.
We called Time and persisted as we were switched from one person and department to another until we were talking with the right person. She understood our request and told us about a warehouse of extra copies the company printed each week. In fact, she discovered that Time wanted to get rid of most of these. She told us that she would ask the warehouse workers to put together boxes of these and call us when we could pick them up.
We got the call and learned that there were hundreds of pounds of magazines. We arranged to borrow my friend’s family station wagon and use his learner’s permit driving license for this trip. He drove us to the warehouse and we loaded box after box of Time magazines, one for each year that spanned many years. The old car sank down on its springs as we filled it with boxes.
We worked, searching, cutting, and pasting over the rest of the semester. Occasionally, a magazine was missing for a week and we made a trip to the library and photocopied. We reported progress every week or two to our history teacher.
To our utter amazement, he no longer required us to take the in-class exams. He simply announced to the class that my friend and I were working on a special project that was far more work than simply taking exams on what we read in the textbook, and would not be taking exams any longer. There was some grumbling. He added that any student who wanted could see him after class and begin work on another special project if they though this was unfair. The room returned to silence.
We turned in our boxes instead of taking the final exam and went home for summer break. About two weeks later, our grades arrived in the mail — both A’s.