I walked into school on my first day as a new teacher to begin the fulfilling work of awakening young minds. I had been well schooled, aced all the tests, cruised through student teaching, and I was ready. I even had a certificate to prove it. Before I was able to reach my room, I was intercepted by the principal, who handed me a shovel.
“We have a problem in the building. Somehow, every day, elephant dung piles up around the place. To keep things sufferable, we ask each teacher to spend a little time each day shoveling.”
I had noticed some elephant dung around the place, and this seemed odd since I hadn’t seen any elephants, but I was new, naïve, and obedient, so I accepted the shovel and cleaned up the space around my room.
That became my daily routine: Walk in, grab a shovel, clear the area of elephantine excrement, and then prepare for students. And it was the same for my fellow teachers. We all complained, but it wasn’t that big a hassle. Unpleasant, but bearable.
Except that, as years passed, we were greeted by increasingly large piles of poo and it took more and more of our time to remove it. It wasn’t long before we were spending most of our day shoveling, and very little time actually teaching students.
Eventually I began questioning the amount of time we were spending on poop removal, then remembered the old joke about the optimistic boy who was asked why he was digging through a waist-deep pile of horse flop:
“There’s got to be a pony in here somewhere!”
That seemed a reasonable explanation, given my present situation. There had to be an elephant in here somewhere. I searched the room from top to bottom, but couldn’t find an elephant to save my life. I had to be missing something obvious, because elephants, to my knowledge, were very large and would seemingly have a difficult time hiding in a room full of small desks. Perhaps I didn’t know enough about elephants.
I began studying up on elephants. I read magazine articles, talked to zoologists and zookeepers, travelled to Africa and India to see elephants in their natural habitats, and, in short, did everything I could to become knowledgeable in the ways of elephants.
At first, it didn’t seem to help much. All I could do was shovel and complain with my fellow teachers. It seemed to be our lot in life, much like the doom of Sisyphus. Just as we would begin exposing the actual floor, a reeking pile of half-digested hay would land with a dull wet “thwop” - the progress we had made obliterated in an instant.
Then, one day, it happened. While bent over my shovel, I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye. When I turned to look directly at it, I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary, but if I made use of my peripheral vision, I could make out the shimmering outline of…something. Something big.
Moving around the room, I surveyed the spot from a variety of angles, careful not to stare directly at it. By the time I reached my original starting point, I knew I was finally seeing the elephant.
Here was the reason for all our years of toil and the answer to our problem. If we could just get the elephant out of the room to do his business elsewhere, perhaps down to the main office, we would be rid of our odious daily chore and free to teach our students once more.
But how does one move an elephant? I tried running at it while waving my shovel, and made (another) startling discovery. As one moves closer to an elephant, its perceived size grows exponentially. By the time I was within 10 feet of it, I knew I would not be able to make the slightest impression on this creature by myself. I retreated to a safe distance and considered my options.
It was obvious that only a team effort would have any chance at moving this beastie. I attempted to recruit my fellow teachers for an all-out assault on the elephant.
Many years have passed. The elephant is still there. The room is still knee-deep in dung and we are still shoveling. The only thing that has changed is that, along with a certain expertise in elephants, I have developed a passing familiarity with the five kinds of people you meet in a room full of elephant crap:
The Blind - Many people simply cannot see the elephant. The poop falls from they know not where, and so there is nothing to do but keep shoveling. This is the way it has always been, and the way it will always be.
The Jaded - Several of the older folk are aware of the elephant. They’ve known about it for years, but they believe it is too large to be moved, and any effort towards that end is doomed to fail. All that’s left for them to do is keep shoveling.
The Distracted - There will be several people running round the edges of the room chasing hamsters. They believe the source of tons of elephant dung is a three-ounce hamster they’ve spotted. They are completely devoted to their quest, and they think you should drop everything you’re doing to help them.
The Quixotes - Occasionally you find a person willing to pick up a pointy stick and join you in poking the elephant. Your combined effort will not be successful, but you might become proficient at dodging an irate elephant. Or get trampled.
You won’t be successful because of the fifth type of person:
The Problem - You will find them at the head of the elephant. They feed the elephant. They love the elephant. They live for the elephant. They are in the fertilizer business, and the elephant is doing exactly what it they brought it into the room to do.
When I walked in this year, the principal again met me at the door.
“There’s no money in the budget for shovels this year,” he said, and handed me a plastic spork.