How Working in an Entropic Hellscape Prepared Me for Teaching

Next time you are near a convergence of a bunch of high voltage lines, look for the nearby monoliths adorned with porcelain antennae and cooling fins. Those are electrical transformers. They are filled with tons, literal tons, of copper, aluminum, steel, brass, porcelain, cardboard, and carcinogenic oil.

From the time I was 17 until I was 22, I worked for my Uncle Ray. He ran a shop where we disassembled electrical transformers and scrapped the components.

I should be clear about how this was achieved, and my role in the process.

Since I was the smallest in stature on the crew, it occasionally fell to me to peel open the steel housing of the dead transformers with a plasma cutter and a pry bar. Then I would climb inside with a can of Raid for defense against the yellow jackets and black widow spiders that make such environments their home. After grueling, filthy contortions to loosen all the nuts and brackets within, I would emerge, smeared with traces of grimy, blue corrosion and drenched in rank oil. We would then lift the core out of the can with an overhead crane.

The pay dirt was the copper. However, we could not harvest the copper until we purged the paper and cardboard from the massive, tightly wound coils of it. So we loaded steel pallets full of the unwieldy, poorly balanced cores into an industrial oven and bathed them in flame, sometimes for as long as 8 hours. Out of curiosity, I once put a 120-degree mercury thermometer on a rail near my workspace. When I checked it a while later, the mercury had shot out the top of it, like something out of a Daffy Duck cartoon.

With the aid of a forklift, finessing the precarious loads into the massive oven was relatively easy. Extracting the pallets, while unnerving green flames licked the drooping cores, and as ash flew in the exhaust fans like a blizzard, was not so easy. And stooping over the pallet and straining to lift, with my poorly protected hands, the layer of thick, high quality outer wire from the still-smoldering spool of inner wire, and then fanning it all out on a grate and blasting it with a pressure washer, effectively transforming the environment into a nightmare of fire and ash and murderous green smoke and hissing steam, all a rich recipe for the pitch-black loogies I hocked up each day at the end of my shift. This was all very hard.

But it was way, way, way easier than teaching.

This is not to say I am not enjoying teaching right now. I am. Three years ago, I made a move to middle school after ten years at the high school, and it turns out that most of the horror stories you hear about that level are myths. Last year was the most pleasant of my career, in fact, once I realized how miraculous it is when a 7th grader’s hormone-soaked brain has managed to retain any thing resembling prior knowledge. I have adjusted to this reality accordingly. The experience has made me a much, much better teacher and reminded me how rewarding it is to learn.

But over the years, as I have moved from experience to experience, both internationally and in multi-state public education, I have come to realize that working at my uncle’s shop prepared me for being an educator much more than any training packaged by higher ed.

I end with a short list of things I learned in my uncle’s hot, noisy shop, and which still influence my practice and professional relationships in education. Perhaps I offer these observations as advice to new teachers, as they are about to enter this grueling, yet oddly addictive profession:

  1. Build a system that controls the workflow and minimizes the mess or soon you’ll have a bunch of garbage lying around.
  2. The tool you need for the job you’re doing does not exist, so be prepared to improvise something.
  3. Never let your ego get in the way of an experienced colleague who has taken pity on you and offered to make your life easier.
  4. You are not going to survive in this environment unless you find something to laugh about.
  5. It is often a good idea to wash your hands before you go to the bathroom.
  6. Even though you’re on your feet all day, you still need exercise.
  7. If your job is always physically and emotionally safe, your job is probably also very boring.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s