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The Two Hour Bookshelf

Dr. Sandberg. Herb. If you knew him, his name brought about a response. If you saw him working in his garden, wearing his halfway unbuttoned shirt, baggy shorts, and bare feet, you would not recognize him as a professor. To see him scrambling in his kitchen in preparation for one of his “over the top” parties for students, teachers, or secretaries, with his gray hair a little more than disheveled, you might never call him Doctor Sandberg. Wondering whether he earned his master’s degree or his doctorate was to miss the point. He was a great teacher.

As an undergraduate, I had the chance to take one of his summer classes. But, since I was a chemistry/physics education major, I was skeptical about what I might learn from Dr. Sandberg’s “Writing for Elementary Students” workshop. I knew Dr. Sandberg as “Herb” because he was a mentor to me and my friend in many ways, and when we were in high school he hired us to mow his lawn and fix things around the house. He paid us too much for what we did, but we knew he was helping us out.

Herb asked me if I would help him prepare for our afternoon class by getting books and other materials ready. It seemed a little early since class didn’t start for another two hours. But, I liked the guy, so I helped him out.

We started at his house by selecting more than several books for young readers. He would call out the title of a book, along with the author, and I would go on the hunt. “It’s a blue book with lots of fish on it. It’s near the top shelf” he would call. That would be an easy search if the three different book shelves didn’t reach from floor to ceiling. “Can you find ‘Polar Express?” he asked from another room. “Give me a minute, Herb!” This book finding quest went on for 45 minutes, switching from room to room.

When we packed up all the books in cardboard boxes, it was time to load his convertible with all of our selections. We drove the half mile to the university parking lot, with Herb’s long gray hair blowing in the breeze. His cigarette ashes were sprinkling throughout the backseat because of the breeze. How his car never caught fire is a mystery.

I ran into the education building and located a cart, and we made our way to his lecture hall. I was a bit winded, and tried to figure out what we were going to do now that we still had one hour until class time. Herb said, innocently enough, “We have to get some things from my office downstairs.”

We used every minute up until class time to locate more books, posters, and anything else that might relate to reading for elementary students. Needless to say, his rolling bookshelf was full.

When class started, I began to see why we needed two hours to prepare. Dr. Sandberg would ask the class, full of experienced elementary teachers, “Name your favorite animal!” Someone would shout, “Turtles!” from the back of the room, and he would dig out Dr. Seuss’s “Yertle the Turtle” and pass it to the back of the lecture hall. “Give me another animal!” Herb shouted. “I like zebras” someone answered. He found “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and handed the book to the teacher. He knew there was a poem about zebras and stripes in this great book. It continued like this off and on for the duration of the lecture. He told us, “This is how you teach kids.” I was humbled in a way that stuck with me to this day.

Why did Herb spend two hours locating books and posters? To show he was excellent? To keep his job? Because he had nothing better to do? A cynic would have noticed that most of the books we gathered went untouched. A skeptic would have said providing a list of the names of the books would have been fine. Cynics and skeptics would have been wrong.

His preparation for just that one class was a gift, a buffet, a menu. With the risk of preparation comes the uncertainty of the return. But Herb learned through experience how to stack the odds in his favor. His was admired and loved as a teacher. The ultimate return was that his name was a boost to hear. It was a conversation starter. He was willing to bet that people understood how his preparation meant he truly cared for their learning, and he modeled it.

This chemistry/physics education major didn’t take any notes that day. I was actually dismissive of the lesson because there was nothing to write down.   It was the first time in my college career that I hadn’t written any notes during a lecture. I am proud to say that Herb taught me one lesson that has lasted my entire 23 years of teaching: I learned to prepare because it shows others that they matter.

I might have seen this lesson coming, had I been paying attention. Each year, Herb would prepare this huge assembly of Christmas ornaments that resembled the shape of a tree. A helpless artificial tree was wired to the corner walls in his family room and winced in anticipation for the load it was about to bear. Over the course of several days, Herb would load no less than 300 bulbs on the tree- ping pong size on the top, cantaloupe size on the bottom. Once covered, no one could actually see the tree underneath.

How do you think our students perceive our preparation? When I started teaching, I never really told students that I spent a lot of time getting the lab ready for their classes, often spending many hours on the weekend in my lab. I figured they would think I’m a little crazy. So why did I start to tell them? It wasn’t to brag or complain. It was to remind them that they are important to me.   I tell them, “I was here at 6:30 a.m. on Saturday preparing this lab because your education is that important to me. Period.” I get a lot of somber stares when I say that.

Do you remember how we used to make a trade when we were kids? The boys in my neighborhood would trade Matchbox cars on a regular basis. But think about how that scene usually played out. There are two fourth graders, each with a car in hand, staring down his “adversary” as they prepared for the transaction. All sorts of things go through their minds in preparation for the trade: hesitation, doubt, mistrust, and strategizing. In the blink of an eye, owners switch cars, and the deal is done.

Are we still like those fourth grade boys when it comes to making connections and building relationships? You bet. There are a lot of us who hesitate to make the first move. We doubt that the other person might like us. There’s mistrust in relationships. And, all of our strategizing has wasted valuable time.

Herb showed us how it’s done. Not only did he make the first move, he spent hours preparing so he could show students they matter. He understood that preparation is a way of bargaining in good faith. It is beyond a promise: it is evidence. Preparation is the completed action that shows another person you mean what you say, even before you say it.

Lesson learned, Herb. Lesson learned.

-Chuck Benway, Culture of Connections Co-creator

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