Teachable Moments (Show and Tell)



“It’s too bad that the only people who know how to run a country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair.” – George Burns

Never mind the country, sometimes that’s how I feel about my job. To paraphrase Mr. Burns: Too bad the only people who know how to run a building are busy lawyering and brokering stocks and dealing art.

Every super knows at least this one thing by experience, and knows it very well: New York City apartment dwellers don’t know squat about what supers do, nor how they do it. But the residents in my building think they know what supers do, and what they’re absolutely, positively sure of is that their super is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And that the best time to call to set up an appointment to get a window blind fixed is after work is finished for the day and I’m taking a nap, because I was up late the night before taking care of yet another problem. Or that a toilet running on is an emergency that should be fixed right away, even if “right away” is somewhere between 9 pm and midnight.

And isn’t it funny that they all seem to be smart enough to know that IF I’m stupid enough to answer my phone after hours, their excuse for calling at a late hour will be that they thought my voicemail would pick up? Did someone learn their lessons too well in law school, or what?

Yes, what tenants, condo and co-op owners absotively, posolutely do not know about the super life would fill many encyclopedic volumes. Still, sometimes it’s our fault.

“The difference between a smart man and a wise man is that a smart man knows what to say, a wise man knows whether or not to say it.”  – Frank M. Garafola

Sometimes it is our fault because often we fail to find that teachable moment, and take advantage of it. A teachable moment? Let’s define a teachable moment, for our purposes here, as that period between the time a question is asked by a resident (usually in the form of a demand, i.e., why can’t someone — read: the super — DO something about yadda yadda yadda?) and that time when we either come up with a viable answer, or a quick answer intended to take the edge off a tough conversation — or we lose patience and walk away — or… worse.

Sometimes it’s our fault because we don’t take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to educate our residents about what we do. Yes, we’re very busy. There’s too much to do in one day’s time, and that to-do list ain’t getting any shorter, is it?

But sometimes we need to just stop and take some time to ‘splain what needs ‘splainin’.

Most of the time, residents are not clueless about what we do and why we do it because they want to be. In many instances it’s a matter of no one ever before having taken the time to teach them the facts. No one previously has taken the time to instruct, when that teachable moment has come along. Consequently, the ignorance is at best perpetuated — often inaccuracies and fallacies are added to a person’s brain databank — and at worst, built upon with lies.

Since when can a super, many of us with little formal education, teach a lawyer ANYTHING? Since there are “teachable moments” – that’s when. I know we’re not teachers — we’re building maintenance workers. We’re supers first, and teaching isn’t even a close third, and I’m not advocating being a fulltime teacher. For most of us that’s not an alternative. I’m simply suggesting that we look for those small moments when we can pass along something helpful – helpful to them and to us.

All of us, whether we realized it at the time or not, have had those moments presented to us in gift wrap and a nice bow. All we had to do was seize the moment that was presented to us. If we look patiently – and don’t overreact, or underreact — we can find these moments.

Case in point: I live and work in a property of a whole bunch of million dollar condos on the upper west side, on a great old tree-lined block in a beautiful and semi-quiet neighborhood. Most of the owners in my building work in high pressure jobs downtown, and spend too little time at home. But when they are at home they don’t want to be bothered by the peculiar quirks of the building, or little things like a toilet getting stopped up. So the babysitter – sorry, I mean the super — gets called, even if it’s late.

We know that it doesn’t take a super to unclog a toilet. Last time I looked in the mirror, I did not even remotely resemble a plunger, not even when I was wearing my rattiest baseball cap.

Hard as it is to believe, a few of these people never learned how to properly use a plunger. Possibly more accurately and to the point, they were never TAUGHT how to use a plunger. And let’s face it, most of these people are NOT self-taught ANYTHING – they spent a lot of time in ivy league classrooms in the past, no?

To be sure, it’s only a few who, although they own their home, know exactly zilch about taking care of it, (one woman once told me that she had no time to do anything in her home and no time to learn it, after all, the reason she lives in a condo is because she can hire someone to take care of everything – pretty much a word for word quote) but in my building they are exactly the type who would not think twice to call me after hours and expect me to show up on their doorstep, with a plunger and a smile, in under a minute flat.

Quite evidently, no one ever took the time to demonstrate the basics to, and enlighten, some people.

When my kid was in kindergarten, she often had to bring something to “show and tell”. Bring a found object or possession of yours to school the next day, show it to the class and talk about what it means to you, or what you can learn to do with it.

Well, after about a year of unclogging toilets and flipping breakers because of overloaded circuits, many if not all at immensely inopportune times, I realized that I was missing something. You might say I had entered a teachable moment myself.

It began to sink into my thick cranium that I needed to take matters into my own hands and take the time – next time, to show and tell. Unstop the toilet, yes, in a timely manner, yes. But also manage the little visit. Maneuver to have them watch, and show them how it’s done. Oh, and work into the conversation that a plunger can be picked up at the hardware store for just a few dollars and kept nearby for just such an “emergency”.

Manipulation? A little manipulation of the situation can go a long way. I did just that a few weeks later, and I haven’t been back to unclog a toilet there since – now many months. Hmmm, come to think of it, I haven’t been back to the apartment to do anything in many months. Yet the owners are friendlier and seem to have more respect for me than ever before.

“A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary.” – Thomas Carruthers

Have I actually done something right for a change? Yes, I think I have, finally. I did what I woulda shoulda coulda done a long time ago. I found that teachable moment, and  — instead of overreacting or, just as bad, underreacting — I taught.

Seemingly insignificant and exceedingly small, yet so important, I finally learned what my kid learned in kindergarten lo these many years ago.

I found an object I’m familiar with, and I went off to show and tell.

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