Our toilet started running. At 11:15 pm on a day that started at 6:15 am (with another 6:15 morning looming), this is the last thing I wanted to notice. I brushed my teeth eeeeexxxtra slowly, hoping I was hallucinating. Finally I gave in to the cascade sounds and watched the water in the tank run and run. Hmmmm. A quick tap on the float and it raised itself back up, stopping the waterfall. “Maybe,” I thought, “Maybe this is a one time thing?!”
My ears were extra-vigilant for bathroom noises. They are anyway… with a 21 month old and a 4.5 year old, you stay vigilant for sounds that indicate someone is drinking out of the toilet, or taking a bath. And sure enough, that dreaded hiss of water! Truly, this was a problem that must be solved.
I’ve entered this unpleasant stage of life. Let’s call it the “Harry Truman” stage. When I was a girl, I probably wouldn’t have noticed. As a teen, I might have told my parents. Probably not. As a young adult, I would’ve called my landlord and it would’ve been his problem. But now, squarely into my fourth decade, the problem was mine. All mine. Note that I’m not the final stop of the Responsibility Train for just toilets. No. My purview includes dietary choices, project dates, playground time, what we can and cannot afford, appropriate number of treats per day (and whether Flav-r-pops count as a whole treat), business rules for new applications, and how stained is too stained for a shirt to continue in a wardrobe. In so many areas, there is no one for me to escalate problems to.
Thus, the toilet.
Back when other people had all the responsibilities, in Junior High, I decided that shop sounded waaaaay more interesting than Home Economics. I’m old enough, I suppose, to have had gender-segregated classes. The plan was that the girls got a year and a half of Home Ec and one semester of shop, and the boys had a year and a half of shop and one semester of home ec. I got through my first, divided year, and emerged convinced that if I never saw another apron pattern in my life, it was too soon for me. So I ended up the only girl in a class of 26 guys and a poor, harried Mr. Jones.
In that year I made a bowl on a lathe. I turned metal. We rebuilt lawnmower engines. We wired and drywalled a fake wall with real electricity. We plumbed, carefully fitting together the tubes with all the various goos. I used the jigsaw, the planer, the lathe, the scroll saw. I used wrenches and hammers and WD-40. I also learned that just because I had no clue how to do something, it didn’t mean I couldn’t learn. The most arcane of masculine skills were not out of my reach; I simply had to find a book and/or a mentor and roll up my skirt.
This came back to me as I gazed into the swirling waters of the toilet. OK, so I didn’t know how to fix this. I knew how to begin. I pulled out the books on home repair (toilet technology in the US hasn’t changed that much in the last 50 years, and our toilet is probably that old). I observed and tinkered to figure out where the problem was. (The floaty thingy wouldn’t float.) I learned the correct name for it, and proceeded to giggle uncontrollably. (It’s a ballcock. I couldn’t wait to go to Lowe’s and tell them that my ballcock wouldn’t rise. Sadly, they proceeded to help me right away.) I bought the spare parts I needed. I turned off the water. I drained the tank. I spent about 2 hours trying to get frozen, rusted bolts to give, until they finally admitted that I was more stubborn than they. I installed the new fitting. And it worked perfectly. I looked down at my hands – black grease embedded stubbornly under my fingernails. It looked better than the finest manicure, to me.
This is a small thing in the realm of home maintenance. Just saying that I can figure out how to fix my toilet, that’s minor. But one of the lessons I think I internalized in that shop course, as I learned about masculine and feminine fittings, was that I could learn about things about which I was completely ignorant. I learned that just because I knew squat about what I was doing right now, that didn’t mean that I had no chance of doing it. I just needed to start at the beginning and follow it through. That lesson, there, is extremely relevant to my Life As a Grownup. Don’t know how to run a meeting? Start at the beginning. What does a meeting look like? Don’t know how to program in Java? Start at the beginning. Find a site or a book with a good overview. Don’t know how to pick a life insurance policy? Start at the beginning. What are the options?
To me, that is the height of what education really is. It’s not about dates or facts or information, although that background is important. It is about the tools to break down problems in areas where you are ignorant, and the confidence to believe that you can learn about things you don’t know. Perhaps other people learn these same lessons doing algebraic equations, or parsing the meaning out of “A Tale of Two Cities”. For me, it came at the business end of a wrench, unveiling the cam shaft of a geriatric lawnmower.
Where did you learn this lesson? Have you?