Declan gets pennies in a reward jar for not annoying me. He earned enough to get something. He asked for a Rubik’s Cube.

I was the last of my friends to get the Rubik’s Cube in the 80’s. I never did learn to solve it.

“Here, Mom, solve it.” Declan tossed it over.

“I don’t know how.” I can do one side of the cube and the ring around the top.

“Solve it,” he said. “You can do everything.”

Seven years old is the time when a little boy looks at his mom and really, honestly, truly thinks she can do everything. I am a superhero for the moment. I smile. The Superhero will go away soon and I’ll be the “worst mom ever” until he moves out.

I think of something a friend said to me.

“You’re smart,” he said. “I have no doubt you can accomplish anything you set your mind to.”  I say that to students every day but only half-believe it about myself. I thanked him, the way adults do when we brush off a compliment.

What if it’s true? What if I really can accomplish anything? 

I picked up the cube. I’d make it a test–the kind of test where I challenge God or the universe and the results don’t relate to or accomplish anything besides annoying the Almighty.

After thirty years, I’d try to solve the Rubik’s Cube. And if I succeeded, it’d be a sign from the heavens that I could do anything.

Peace in the Middle East? Check.

Cure incurable diseases? Check.

Solve the problems in education? Got it.

Everything depended on solving the cube.

A few years ago, a student was playing with one in class. He solved it in less than thirty seconds. I took it, scrambled it, and tossed it back. “Do it again,” I said.  He did.

“Show me.” He explained. He was patient, the way I am with my students who don’t understand. He tried again and again, as I would have. I wasn’t smart enough to understand the solution. This straight-F kid couldn’t dumb it down enough for me.

“You know, people will pay you money to think like that. Engineering, algorithms…” I told him he was a genius, even if his transcript didn’t agree. He said he hated school, that he felt more like an inmate than a genius.

That’s the way things go sometimes. It takes a different setting to see our true strength.

I didn’t learn to solve the cube, and while it took him an extra year or two, he graduated. I hope he’s doing well. I’ll dedicate my cube solving to him.

I decided to take the 21st century approach to solving the cube. YouTube. I tell students they, too, can conquer the world on YouTube.

“What do we need you for, Miss?” they ask. Fair enough.

“Because I’m older and I’ve messed up more. I’ll tell you how not to mess up.” It’s the best answer I have.

The new cube is different, harder. There are no stickers to peel off and rearrange. I can’t cheat. It has to be solved. This is the new high-stakes cube. Fail, and the world will see. Algorithms, data, patterns–I thought the cube was supposed to be a game. It’s starting to remind me more and more of work.

I can solve it by memorizing a deconstructed series of moves that can be replicated so even my dog can learn to do it.

“Why do we all have to do the same thing in class,” students ask me. I tell them I don’t know. It’s in the curriculum. Everyone does what’s in the curriculum. Then we take The Test. I suppose acing The Test is sort of like solving the cube. You try for years and eventually you either do it or you walk away.

What does it count for? I don’t know. A rite of passage perhaps? Weeding out the weak from the strong? Not so much–only life does that–not the cube. Not The Test.

After repeating the final series of patterns, I solved the Rubik’s Cube. I was on top of the world. I took a picture so I could remember it, in case I could never do it again. It took thirty years but all six sides looked uniform. Over the next week, I solved it two more times by myself, and only had to have a student bail me out once.

Does this count? I wondered. I still can’t solve the cube by myself. I need the cheat sheet or a fifteen-year old about three-quarters of the way through.

In educational terms we’d say I haven’t learned to be an independent thinker. I have simply learned to comply, pull the lever, dance for the dog treat, and produce a standardized result. If you’re a glass-half-full person like me, you’d argue I used superior research skills to get a difficult job done.

I tell my students using YouTube isn’t cheating. It’s finding, evaluating, and employing the appropriate resources, which is a job skill that will lead them to high-level success. Or being able to solve the Rubik’s Cube.

Even though solving the Rubik’s Cube turned out to be a lot like being dog trained, I still feel pretty good. It was thirty years well spent.

According to my one-sided deal with God, this means I really can do anything. Maybe I’ll do something important or helpful for mankind.

According to my son, though, I get to be a superhero one more day.

That is infinitely more important than solving all the problems in the world.


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