A Timeless Classic . . .

Meanwhile, it's true, what you've heard, there are only seven kinds of stories to tell under the sun, and, no, you shouldn't expect to read anything new here. This is nothing more than the simple retelling of a boy and his thirty-five best friends.

Over this past summer, a particularly tumultuous summer for our family if you recall, I had the opportunity to teach developmental writing at a community college in North Carolina. I had never taught this level before, and found it, undoubtedly among my most treasured teaching experiences. Imagine beginning a term with adult students -- many of whom don't know the difference between a verb and a noun -- and working with them through clauses and sentences until they begin submitting to you descriptive, narrative, argumentative, and instructional paragraphs. It really is fantastic!

For their final project, I asked the students to all write an instructional paragraph: the form for an instructional paragraph is simple. I presented them with the simplest instructions to the easiest question I have ever heard: How do you get an elephant into a refrigerator? The question, of course, creates more interesting answers than there are people in the world, ranging from chase it with a mouse to build a refrigerator around the elephant . . . and it goes on like that. These answers, I believe, result from over-thinking the question. The best answer, though, that always wins the trivia contest is the simplest answer. In a sense, it's Ockham's Answer -- from Ockham's Razor, which suggests that the simplest answer available is usually the best. It's an elegant answer, and we all always love it. How do you get an elephant into a refrigerator? You open the door, and you put the elevator into the refrigerator, and you close the door.

The example seems simple enough, right?

So. My students had to describe to me in written form how to do something. My only caveat, I told them, is that you have to describe something I don't already know how to do. I thought this would be a useful criterion, because it would force them to come up with something more complicated than "How to Tie Shoes," I thought it would allow them to discuss an area they feel competent such that they could be the expert rather than me, and I thought it would open up the class to ask me questions about myself, which would mean that for a brief moment I would be the center of attention. Victory would be mine!

All of these things proved to be true. The students started asking me questions. Malik, the first student to raise his hand asked, "Do you know how to swim?"

Malik, I knew from earlier conversations, had come to the United States for the first time to compete as a swimmer in the World Games. Still, I know how to doggie paddle, so I said, "Yes."

He said, "Do you know how to be a world class swimmer?"

I said, "Can you teach me how to be a world class swimmer?"

He took a moment to look me up and down, his brow furrowing, a wince growing on his face, a constant shaking head of disbelief. "No, Mr. Connor. I cannot." Ha! Hadn't thought that far ahead, had you Malik?

Other students chimed in.

"Do you know how to play baseball?"


"Do you know how to drive a stick shift?"


"Do you know how to play poker?"


"Damn," one of my students said, "he knows how to do everything."

One student, Malik, raised his hand intermittently during this conversation with his own questions. "Do you know," he asked me, "how to raise four children?"

"Yes, Malik, I do."
I was feeling pretty good about myself. I even tried to encourage the students with another thought experiment. "How," I asked them, "do you get a giraffe into a refrigerator?" I expected, once again, the traditional cluster of questions and responses, ranging from the use of welder's tools to small homemade explosives, but the first student to raise her hand said, "You open the refrigerator, take out the elephant, put the giraffe in the refrigerator, and close the door." Hmm. I'm a better teacher than I thought.

Soon, the students started pushing a little harder to come up with ideas that weren't so facile. One student said, "Do you know how to cook?"

I said, "Yes."

"Cook chicken?"


"Cook southern-fried chicken with chitlins and grits?"


Malik said, "Do you know how to mix mortar for the masonry?"

"Yes, Malik, I do."

Other students started falling in line, pushing passed the facile and digging into the more specific, more individual lessons they could teach me, things about life that I might not already know. One student asked if I knew how to pack for vacation . . . on a tight budget . . . to Antigua. No, I don't. I asked her, "How do you know how to pack for vacation on a tight budget to Antigua?"

She said, "I don't, but I'm gonna find out before you do."

Malik said, "Do you still know how to drive a manual stick shift vehicle?"

"Yes, Malik, I do."

"Damn, man," he said, "you have done just about everything." He tilted his head, contemplatively, for a moment and through out a Hail Mary. "Do you know," he asked, "how to catch a, how you say it, hip-po-po-to-mas?"

I said, "Did you say, 'catch a hippopotamus?"


"No, Malik, I do not know how to do that. Do you know how to catch a hippopotamus?"

"Yes, Mr. Connor, I do."


"Yes, Mr. Connor."

"Would you please write a paragraph describing how to catch a hippopotamus?"

"Yes, Mr. Connor."

After every student in the class came up with something about which to inform me, we set out on our quest to write the paragraphs. Because we had a week to write them, I offered that anybody, who was drafting a paragraph and having particular difficulty, could certainly feel free to change their topic, but they absolutely had to run their idea past me first, because, as we had already determined, I know how to do just about everything. Well, fourteen or fifteen things, anyway.

Over the following week, we talked a little about steps in a process, how to use, "First . . . and then . . . and then . . . finally . . ." and other templates for stepping a reader through a necessary order. Meanwhile, I was looking forward to Southern-fried chicken, a trip to Antigua, learning how to play Whist, and, of course, perhaps, catching a hippopotamus.

I met one student at the door on the way into class, and he said, "Mr. Connor, I had to change my topic for the paragraph."

I said, "Bob, we've talked about this. You've got to run your ideas passed me first."

"I know, but you don't know how to do this."

"I don't know, Bob, I know how to do several things."

"Do you know how to make crack out of cocaine using the baking soda method?"

"I do not know how to do that, Bob."

"Well, you won't be able to say that after you read my paper."

I found the instructive paragraphs to be a success in almost every way for almost every student. Several students chose describing a recipe, and those went over very well, as I was almost always hungry that summer: I appreciated most the fact that each of them started their instructional paragraph with something akin to "First you have to turn on the stove." That chicken ain't, after all, gonna southern fry itself. The card game instructions all started with "First shuffle the deck," which I appreciated and approved of.

Thanks to randomly arranging the paragraphs in the order I wanted to read them, the second to the last paragraph taught me how to make crack out of cocaine using the baking soda method. Neither had I ever wanted to know that, nor had I ever thought I would learn it from a student. Now, I have learned it, and I can't unlearn it. Take that brain.

And, finally, of course, "How to Catch a Hippopotamus: by Malik . . ."

"First," Malik writes, "you have to find a hippopotamus." Well. At this point, he had pretty much wrapped up an A for the class. And, diligent learner that I am, I made immediate plans to get to the Asheboro Zoo down near Charlotte as soon as possible; surely, they would have a hippopotamus or something like it. "Next," writes Malik, "get thirty-five of your closest friends." Shit, at that point, got real. He went on to describe twelve of your friends flanking one side of the river, twelve the other side. The final twelve, and I call them final specifically, end up in homemade rafts paddling around in the soup over top of a herd of water horses, who can run 20 miles an hour, swim even faster, and weigh up to three tons. In retrospect, maybe I should have taken the swimming lessons.

What happens next in the essay involves nets and grappling hooks and short sharp spears. Concise, elegant: the paragraph, truly earned an A. Afterwards, when he met with me for a personal conference, I said, "This is a great paragraph. I just have one question."

He said, "Yes?"

"How do you get a Hippopotamus into a refrigerator?"

"Ah, that is very easy, but it's gonna take more than thirty-five friends."

I left that answer at good enough, and entered the final grades into the grade book. Like I say, it's your classic tale of boy meets hippopotamus. Nothing new. Still, it will give you all something to think about as you're out in the world chasing rhinoceri, packing for Toledo on the cheap, and making whatever you know how to make out of baking soda.

Post Script: as always, Desi says, "Hi."

Unfortunately, she saw the picture of the hippo above, so she's saying hi from a different room.

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