An educator looks at the January woodpile

By Todd R. Nelson

If you’re anything like me, and your winter is proceeding anything like mine, the woodpile is a kind of barometer. Things are looking good. It’s been fairly warm, despite a few arctic blasts. And then we hit the January thaw, as we did this week. And one can begin to imagine that the woodpile will hold out for as long as it needs to hold out; that back in the summer, we somehow managed to cut and split and stash away sufficient fuel. Relief. Going to make it.

There’s still February, I know. But the rate of draw-down of fuel is working hand-in-hand with time and temperature. I feel like a squirrel who’s keeping an eye on the acorn stash, or the mouse whose acorn stash seems to reside in the ductwork of my Subaru. I digress.

The school year is also a bit like a woodpile.

It started with 175 school days, stacked up tidily like so many logs, to be drawn down hand-in-hand with time and learning temperature. That’s right, learning makes heat. As of this week, schools have burned through about half of the pile. What I liked to call Middle Day will take place on or about Jan. 27, right around lunchtime, pending snow days of course.

Perhaps you’ll feel the tipping as you “summit” and then shift over to the “western slope” of the school year. The educational watershed will then run toward the Pacific (summer), and gently descend to summary accomplishments and finales. The students will have fully inhabited, say, “fourth-graderness” and can start to anticipate the next year and impending “fifth-graderness.”

But learning burns at an unpredictable rate and temperature, like birch versus oak or maple; green or seasoned. There’s actually more heat in the second half of the learning log pile than in the first half. And there’s always spontaneous combustion! You just never know when a smoldering coal is going to ignite and flare up. That’s a special kind of school day. Perhaps you can remember one in our own career — a day that made all the difference for every succeeding day, month or year. Combustion made you who you were.

Back to February. Yes, we can grow the pile by adding more days if we lose a little time to snow. It’s like the proverbial glass that’s half full … or half empty. Pouring in, or pouring out? Building up or drawing down? Or both.

Or let’s throw out the metaphor because it’s so confining. We’re always adding up and counting down something. But there are so many other variables at work besides time and wood supply! Like the path we’re taking on the next part of the hike. Are you seeing those planets in the morning sky? Orion? That humongous moon in January? Are you starting to envision lupine in the field? Bird migration? Bear awakening? Raspberries and blueberries? Open water fishing? Anticipation is its own kind of fuel and combustion.


Todd R. Nelson is a former teacher and principal who lives in Penobscot.

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