Doing anything for the first time is hard, especially if there is no one to tell you how and you've never closely watched someone else do it. A good demonstration of this was given by Pat Moran, principal of Wheaton (Md.) High School, which my brother and I attended.
Dr. Moran was very popular with our family for the same reason that he had a rough time at first with some of our neighbors. At his first PTA meting, he put his foot in his mouth rather spectacularly. It was his first appointment as a high school principal, if we recall correctly, and he was stimulated by the academic challenges involved. He talked at length of the exciting academic prospects of the school and his hopes for the coming year. But he left out something important.
His predecessor had been an avid sports fan and always talked about the school athletic program. At the first chance for questions, a parent spoke up. "Dr. Moran," he said, "you haven't told us how the teams are doing."
"I'm so glad you asked," our principal replied, "this is the first school I've ever been at that has a Latin Scrabble team. Last week, our team won its match with Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. I'm sure you all know what a good reputation they have, and I'm really excited by that."
The silence in the hall was impressive.
By the next month, someone had explained things to Dr. Moran. After that, the voluble Irishman realized that his excitement about academics would be better received if it followed a few words about the best plays in last week's football game and his high hopes for the coming basketball season.
It wasn't the first time, Moran explained, that he'd missed something important on his first try. He'd started as principal of an elementary school in the rural northern end of the county. A city boy, he recruited help to plant a garden at the school: tomatoes, peas, cucumbers, and potatoes. The plantings were timed so that in September the younger classes could go out, water the garden, and harvest some of the crop. He had them pick, as appropriate, the tomatoes, the peas, and the cucumbers. But no matter how long he waited, he didn't see any potatoes on the potato plants.
When a supervisor from the school board visited, Pat Moran took him to the garden and talked about how much the younger pupils enjoyed it. He said that everything had done well except the potatoes. He wondered if the plants that had come up were just weeds. He finally pulled one up in frustration and learned something about potatoes. Apparently his Irish parents had never told him that potatoes grow underground.
On another occasion, he took the younger classes fishing. He cut poles, bought string and fish hooks, and they spent the morning on the banks of the upper Potomac River. A wonderful time was had by all, although no one caught any fish. After an hour or two of fishing, everyone put down their poles and gathered for a picnic lunch by the river. A passerby asked if he might try one of the poles. He took a bit of meat from a sandwich, put it on the hook, and pulled in a fish almost immediately. Moran had failed to suggest that the pupils use any bait.
Working as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, my wife has sometimes been the person a new homeowner could call to ask how something works, how to fix it, or whether they need to call someone to repair it. Some men do conform to the common image by being very reluctant to ask for instructions. I'm happy to say that my wife has admitted that I may not be quite as bad as some in this regard. But then, Pat Moran was the principal of my high school.