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Little rubber boots / for little tiny feet / for tromping in the mud / that she'll likely want to eat.

I had an interesting discussion with someone the other day.  In this person’s classroom, she has made a real effort to develop intrinsic motivation with the students.  What this means in a practical sense is that she has worked to take away the reward and punishment systems that normally accompany education: the “carrot at the end of the stick” model, the “cheese in the maze” model, or (my favourite) the “lone After Eight mint in the box full of empty wrappers” model.

When I was in school, everything was built around the idea that if you accomplished some quantifiable goal, you gained some tangible reward (free time, a game of dodgeball, access to the school’s cannon).  Likewise, if you didn’t do what you were supposed to there was a strong likelihood of punishment (a call home, a trip to the principal’s office, firing squad).

And while I would usually say that it is far easier to control a classroom full of kids that has been trained to the specificities of a reward and punishment system (as one might train a room full of yappy puppies), there is something to be said for sending students out into the real world with the belief that good work should be done for the sake of good work, not merely for monetary compensation.  These kids will hopefully approach their lives with the goal of trying to find their calling, not just something to do to pay the bills.  They will value quality of life, not quantity of things.

In this discussion, I referenced my father’s life.  He always provided for my brother and me, and I certainly do not judge his career path for that reason alone, but he did spend a lot of his time manoeuvring his way across an exhausting game of Corporate Snakes and Ladders.  After what seems like decades of school, he built his reputation, built his network, was transferred and promoted and transferred again, went from law to sales to management, and ultimately found himself in a daily drive 3 hour drive to put in 14 hour work days.

Then his heart stopped working.

It wasn’t a heart attack, which is what one normally associates with this kind of a story (along with ulcers and alcohol abuse).  Instead, his heart simply stopped pumping for several seconds at a time.  He described the feeling as a bit of a flutter.  (I think I would describe the feeling as “momentary death,” but it’s never happened to me, so I don’t know).  The doctor hooked up a nifty little machine to him to see what was going on, let it run for a day or so, read the results, and promptly told my father to get to the nearest hospital as quickly as the laws of physics would allow.

The first thing I said to him when I saw him in the hospital was, “How the %^&* did you not notice that your heart was stopping for 6 seconds at a time?”

(Seriously, count to 6 “Mississippily” and see how long that is to be without a pulse.)

After getting a pacemaker installed, my father changed a lot of things in his life.  Step one was to quit his job and find something that wouldn’t kill him.  He moved into a totally different field, one that allows him to set his own hours and limits his rush hour driving.  He has time to play with his dogs, go for walks with his wife, dig in his gardens, and find tiny rubber boots for his impending granddaughter.

I don’t know if he would look back and change anything about the way things happened to bring him to where he is now; I don’t think of him as someone that lives with many regrets.  I do know that he is happier than I have ever seen him.  I know that he brightens up every time that I remind him that he will be grandfather.  He has time to visit his sons, talk to his family, take trips to on his motorcycle, and keep up with his ever-present piles of The Economist and The Globe and Mail.

Maybe some of the kids in my friend’s classroom will bypass the years of overtime and heart stoppages.  Maybe they will be able to find something that pays the bills but also makes them deliriously happy to do.  And if they can’t find that, I hope that they at least find a bearable job that gives them time and freedom enough to enjoy the unquantifiable things in their lives.