Advanced problem solving

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, May 3, 2015

On a recent drive home from Carbondale, I find myself thinking about Mr. Feeny, the principal of John Muir Elementary School in 1969. He is standing on the lunchroom stage before a group of us, 10 or so sixth-graders chosen to participate in a problem-solving class billed as “Advanced Reading.”

It’s cutting-edge stuff. No homework, no quizzes and a different approach: learn by learning how to think. The parents are skeptical, just as they are skeptical of the so-called “new math,” which, rife with unfamiliar jargon, similarly focuses on process.

All the 11-year-olds know at the moment is they are having class on a stage, doing something novel with this freshly minted edition of principal, who is smart and smartly dressed, sometimes goes by “Dr.” Feeny and elicits a mysterious deference from them, an age group not known for sitting up with pricked ears for more than two seconds at a time. I believe we are even allowed to chew gum in this weekly class.

1969 floats to the surface after a recent scenario with my daughter, one in which we are called upon to problem solve and to do so before the low-battery light on my phone, a device necessary for use of the only flashlight, becomes no light at all. When we arrive at her apartment, close to midnight, we find that the sliding glass door, the only entry to the small unit perched above a garage on a hill overlooking a sleeping valley, has locked itself from the inside. The metal latch is firmly down, on a door that doesn’t lock from the outside. It’s a mindbender.

In Advanced Reading we sit casually around a table feeling like little adults, while Dr. Feeny, on a stool, depicts a scenario that requires us — by asking questions — to solve a mystery. In one situation, for instance, a group of bulldozers has disappeared from the Alaskan permafrost when a crew returns after winter to take up their work again. How??? I love this class! I love the sound of students thinking outside the box, sheer-willing themselves toward answers. The air is buzzing, heavy with focus.

My first thought, looking into the apartment — the lights of which we’ve oddly and fortuitously forgotten to turn off — is to try the old credit card trick, even though the latch situation is nothing like a cheap door (many of which I’ve popped). Completely ridiculous, my daughter says, as she fiddles with a screwdriver.

The nearest windows, awning-style cranks, are locked. “We might have to sleep in the car,” I say, caught somewhere between procrastination and the idea that the light of day might be part of the solution, or that a piece of information is missing. Such as Goldilocks has locked the door and is sleeping in the bedroom.

“What?” Celine barks. “I want to be in my own bed, which is right there, 10 feet away.” She is wearing that lovely adamantine tone that holds no room for compromise. “We could break a window.”

“We’re not doing that.” I’m adamant now.

One thing I love about the lunchroom at John Muir is the hair-netted cooks getting food ready. The big, soft rolls baking. Chop suey, or something, cooking. Eventually, it feels so good to solve the problem, to feel the solution rising underneath us like a volcano. Some lucky kid throws out the final answer. The bulldozers in Alaska have actually sunk completely in the spring mud on account of thawing permafrost. Eureka!

“My bedroom window isn’t locked,” Celine says. “We could pull the car up next to the building and I could climb in.”

“That will never work,” I say. “The window is too far up.”

Never is a dangerous word, especially when thrown like gasoline into someone’s monomaniacal fire. Long story short, the Outback is parked eight inches from the garage exterior. Four tires found behind the main house are wedged between wall and car and then stacked on top of each other. With flashlight nearly dead, a stepladder is placed on top of the tires. Celine, MacGyvering her way to her bed, finds a pruning saw that she uses to cut through the screen. The small double-hung window, sticking badly, finally gives way, allowing the top to come down and leaving a 12-inch opening, whereby, high on will and adrenaline, she hoists herself up a couple feet, and, head-first, drops in, like a badger into its hole.

We never really solve the latch mystery. But one thing becomes clear: In advanced problem-solving situations involving reuniting a tired 20-something with her pillow-topped mattress, the sheer power of determination is the mother, father, sister and brother of invention.

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