How Teaching Is Like Blowing Leaves & Snow

Leaf Blower ManSeveral years ago, my wife and I moved from Oklahoma to northern Indiana. We’re still surrounded by radical right-wingers, but compared to Oklahoma, this might as well be an anarcho-syndicalist commune. Still, there are things about Oklahoma I miss (other than friends and family, of course).

Oklahoma storms are better. It rains here, naturally, but rarely do decent storms last more than five or ten minutes. All the trees fall over and the power goes out, but by that time it’s clear outside again and it’s all a bit surreal. I still don’t understand how a few moments of moderate breeze consistently flattens the flora and cripples the entire region, but so be it. We’ve had one actual evening of possible tornadoes here since moving in and - for the first time in my life - I was able to take the family down to the basement to ride it out. You don’t appreciate how “normal” tornado season is in Oklahoma until you see locals elsewhere reacting to possible rotation or vaguely scary clouds as if the aliens had already emerged from their ships and all of Grovers Mill was about to be destroyed. 

Fall, on the other hand, is quite pretty here. And when it snows - ohmyholybabygoodness! For years I found it odd that the snow in movies and TV shows looked so fake, all fat and fluffy like the angels were pillow-fighting upstairs. It turns out I’d simply never seen real snow. Oklahoma has a version of frozen precipitation of course, and at times it’s lovely enough. But the scenic stuff is a regular feature here - sometimes in odd bursts at the weirdest moments, and other times going on for days. 

So, being a manly man with a ridiculously long driveway (for no bigger than our property is), I purchased manly machines to help cope with the insane volume of leaves which pile up for nearly a third of each calendar year, as well as the periodic snowy apocalypse. I bought me a leaf blower and a snowblower so I could, um… BLOW STUFF just like other manly-men in the neighborhood.

As it turns out, however, leaf blowing and doing pretty much anything with snow are a mixture of art and science which take some time to master. Either can prove oddly fulfilling, but most of the time… well, it’s just frustrating and embarrassing how badly it sometimes goes. As someone who has embarrassed myself regularly throughout my life, I am certain I’ve rarely looked quite as foolish as I did the first half-dozen times I powered up either of these devices. Some days I still do. 

That’s the part that was somehow oddly familiar from day one.

How Leaf Blowing Is Like Classroom Teaching

1. You can read all the instructions and watch all the videos you like - there’s simply no way you’ll find out what works and what doesn’t until you get out there and start doing it. You can’t practice in private or hide your mistakes from your neighbors, all of whom are better at it than you are on the day you begin. Their reactions, in fact, may determine whether or not you keep trying at all.

2. You have tremendous power to make a huge number of leaves move from where they are. There’s no doubt about the impact you’re having, at least in terms of raw influence. Unfortunately, no matter how you point the thing or what you think you’re doing with the trigger, the leaves seem to largely go where they choose once the movement starts. Many go the general direction you had in mind, others seem to somehow move towards you instead. Many go random directions despite starting from the same place.

3. You quickly discover that while the air feels quite calm to you, the leaves are largely moved about by breezes you can’t feel and wind you can’t control. Leaves you were certain were cooperating quite nicely are suddenly wafted elsewhere, while others lying apparently carefree on the grass refuse to budge, no matter how dramatically you rev the tiny motor. Some would rather shred into pieces than blow the direction you’re asking them to blow.

4. Everything seems to work better for the folks around you than it does for you. There are a few neighbors (er… teachers?) who don’t bother with their lawn at all, but others seem to have trained their leaves to move quickly but firmly and in an orderly fashion towards the piles along the curbs. They smile and wave and you’re not sure if their friendliness makes it better or worse.

5. Once you’ve started, there’s no easy place to stop. Like mowing or showering, you can’t simply walk away mid-blow. Unlike mowing or showering, however, there no clear point at which you’ve accomplished what you set out to do. In other words, once you’ve committed to the process, you’re going until nightfall or until you run out of gas entirely.

6. No matter how effective you may feel you were or how long it took to get things to a reasonably acceptable state, you’ll have twice as many leaves in your yard tomorrow as you did when you started. As each pile is dealt with, nature redoubles its efforts and your job seems to grow increasingly daunting with each minor success. This can be… discouraging, and make you forget how much you really did accomplish the day before. Probably.

7. If you don’t do something (if you leave the leaves where they are), they rot and begin doing destructive things to your grass or anywhere else they manage to get themselves stuck. In other words, however frustrating it is, you have to try. It’s far worse if you don’t try.

How Using A Snowblower Is Like Classroom Teaching 

1. When it’s time to get started, it’s time - whether you’re ready or not. You have to be prepared when the snow shows up and don’t get to pick and choose your time and place. Sometimes it’s when you least feel like it that the job is most important.

2. Everyone thinks they could handle a snowblower until they’re actually doing it. How hard could it be? It’s just like handling a lawnmower, right? The machine genuinely does most of the work; all you’re really doing is guiding it, yes? And yet... somehow it never quite goes like you expect and the machine rarely does what you expect it to do.

3. Don’t underestimate the role of the snow and what it decides to do in the process. Snow, however light and fluffy it may appear, often has a mind of its own. A stubborn, cruel mind. A Frosty’s even twin kinda mind. That doesn’t make it less precious or whatever, but it does make everything more complicated. And that’s not even considering the stuff that somehow ends up hidden in the snow that you never anticipated...

4. It’s a whole lotta power to put in one person’s hands. For better or worse, stuff will be grabbed, hacked, and expelled at high velocity in whatever direction you go. When things go well, you accomplish amazing things in the harshest conditions. When they don’t, you sometimes create more problems than you were trying to solve in the first place. You don’t want that sort of responsibility? Stick to a shovel.

5. Every choice you make impacts everything else going on. I can blow snow off of my driveway, but that means shooting it into my neighbor’s lawn - so I should probably make sure he’s OK with that first. Or, I could shoot it at my own house and risk knocking out a window or two. When I think I’m being helpful by doing the sidewalks, I’m also building up snow dams in the driveway of the older lady next door. She doesn’t need the sidewalks, but now she can’t back her car out without getting stuck. In other words, even when it’s effective, you have to think through things a lot more than you expect when you start.

6. You have to build in recovery time. You can brush out some snow clogs (with the engine off, obviously) and do some maintenance before returning to the job, but at some point to maintain effectiveness, you have to let the thing completely thaw and let all the nasty stuff drip off. Only then can you make sure the oil is properly filled and the blades sharp. I suppose you could use a hair dryer or copious amounts of alcohol, but there’s no substitute for knowing when to press on and when to close the garage and walk away for a bit.

7. Once you’ve got the hang of it - at least sometimes - you miss it when you’re not doing it. We’ve had several mild winters in a row (but don’t call it climate change - they hate that up here!) and for all its miseries, I’ve longed for the chance to fire up the stupid machine again and give it another go. I’m sure that next time I could blow that snow exactly where I want it to go and have that driveway spotless!

This year, I have new neighbors next door. A young couple from somewhere down south - Houston, I think. He just bought his first leaf blower. I promise to smile and give a friendly wave, no matter what happens when he tries it out. 

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