It culminated in glory.
Yesterday Grace and I strung the magnolia and arbor in the front yard with solar LED lights and some glitter balls and gold pine cones we bought last year. Fingers are crossed on the lights charging up today for a show tonight.
The glory, though, is the big final event for one of my favorite classes to work on at MIT, in mechanical engineering: 2.009 Product Engineering Processes. The name of the class might not arouse excitement — it could even evoke an image of a conveyor belt, which the word “processes” always does for me — but the experience of the class, students, and creativity does. Over the term, teams of 16+ students brainstorm, model, test, and prototype an innovative product. This year’s theme was “outdoors.” My two teams, Red and Silver, respectively developed a portable cookpot for campers heated by an exothermic chemical reaction (no flame!) and an innovative hand truck with treads to improve the ergonomics of delivering filled beer kegs from a parked truck to the basement storage areas of bars and restaurants.
If you are curious, you can watch the final presentations for Red’s Heatware and Silver’s Clydesdale by going to the course website (link) and clicking the links in the upper right corner.
Students don’t write formal reports in this class, although there are other writing tasks that I and other communication instructors can advise them on, such as surveys of potential customers and text for a product brochure. There are diverse presentations at milestone reviews that punctuate the development process, and we coach them on those. We also are members of the team, along with lab instructors, and that’s the best part — attending weekly meetings, lurking in the lab as they design and machine parts, and asking the kinds of questions that gets young people to think more critically about their original work. It’s socially rewarding too.
And the conclusion is like the last day of summer camp, or (as adults) the week-long writing or arts conference that you loved, and filled to the brim with every emotion: fatigue, worry, friendship, achievement, and anticipated loss. There is relief, but we do miss each other when it ends.
Way back in September, I had tried to schedule my semester to lighten my load for the final two or three weeks so I could give 100% to the product design class. I even jiggered the deadline for a final proposal in another class so that I could read them all before Thanksgiving. (I thought this would be good for the students, too.) That made November packed. Here’s an image of my at-home Homework Center, working alongside Lydia and Grace at the dining room table. It was a grind, but at least we were together.
The autumn wasn’t all schoolwork. There was Thanksgiving at my sister Sally’s house with everyone. There was a wonderful, compressed trip to Orlando for a so-so conference and a few vacation days tacked on, which included a day at the Magic Kingdom and a day with the manatees in Crystal River (link). There was the cool fall day I replaced the rotted pieces on our kitchen porch, having gotten advice and help from the mechanical engineering lab director. Very satisfying labor and accomplishment.
And there were of course high points and engaged students in my other three classes, in biology, nuclear science engineering, and measurement and instrumentation for mechanical engineers.
Some things didn’t get done. There has been very little blogging or writing of any kind that wasn’t a review of student work. I made my peace with that as I was fixing and painting the porch over Thanksgiving weekend, and I realized that, to really do well at a task that is important to me, my motivation cannot be split across different ones. It only creates frustration, and not the productive kind, to be doing one thing and wishing you were actually doing another thing. I did think about writing — I wasn’t all “in the moment” — but it was without that inner torture of feeling as though time was slipping away. I said to myself, “I will come back to it.”
This happened also with skating. Some weeks I practiced only one time. Still, the lessons and progress continue. I recently signed up for a USFSA skills test on February 3rd, and I plan to skate at least three times per week over my winter break to get ready for it. I want there to be meaningful goals without anxiety or self abuse.
Recently, my friend Betsy and I were talking about our lives at midpoint, and what we have learned. We agreed that there is a kind of liberation to letting go the could-have-beens and to narrowing our focus on the parts of life most important to us. We recognize the limits within and without, and we see the tremendous space inside them, especially when the could-have-beens are carved away. I am parent and teacher first — maybe at my core I am a nurturer and steward of children and young people — and other strong interests often seem fitted to those or impossible without them. For example, three writing projects that are simmering on a back burner have something to do with children and the contraries of raising them. Central to my marriage to Jimmy is our shared devotion to, as well as shared burden of, parenting. (Interesting how devotion and burden are often intertwined.)
A couple of days after the December 10th final presentations for 2.009, that wonderful product design class, I went to its farewell dinner and talked to many students and staff. One student asked me if I had observed that the course professor had seemed choked up a bit when he was on stage during the students’ tribute to him, and if I had any thoughts why that might be. I couldn’t speak for the professor, but I did speak for myself and explained that, if you really love teaching, as I do, at some point during that night in particular there may be a moment when you think to yourself, “I have the best job on earth.” You see young people at their best, after weeks and weeks and weeks of work at times creative and at times tedious, and you feel great hope for the world. To be part of something greater than one’s self — so great it may even obscure one’s individual contribution — is transcendent. Tears leak out.
On December 15, Lydia hosted an outdoor skating party for about 100 students from the high school. Back in October I put the deposit down on my credit card and signed the liability paperwork, and she advertised it via Facebook, collected money from kids, and made the playlist. We bought a sheet cake. Jimmy and I were the only designated chaperones, although a couple of teachers came, too, and Eli and Grace also came along, and so did my brother-in-law and niece. I skated, of course, and secretly desired to act out my someday fantasy of being an ice rink guard. Lydia had cautioned me to be almost invisible and not to say anything. I bit my tongue therefore and resisted the temptation to give unsolicited tips to the absolute beginners.
It was not my night. It was theirs.
And now I’m back.
Credit for Red Team photo goes to 2.009 Red Team, Fall ’12, courtesy of Brigitte Morales.