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What Do You Make?

May 11, 2016

I didn’t even know that slam poetry was a thing when I first heard it. I can’t say that I’m a fan, except for one piece by a poet named Taylor Mali called “What Teachers Make.” 

His poem is about teachers and what teachers make. He uses a play on the word “make” to mean both what do they earn and what do they create. It made me think about what I make. Not in terms of what do I earn. The financial rewards of our jobs are actually pretty boring. It’s just money. Studies say that if you make at least $70,000 per year, additional money doesn’t bring you greater happiness. I describe that concept as 

Money is a lousy motivator.

But, I had to think, what do I make? What is my contribution to my company, to society, to my family, to my posterity? When I’ve played out my few scenes on this stage and take my final bow, what will people remember? After a few years, will they remember anything? 

I think we all see ourselves as the hero of our own movie. We are important. We are relevant. We are memorable. But, are we?

I once wrote a book on Microsoft Exchange. It sold over 10,000 copies. You can still buy it on Amzon for $0.01. You see, after a few years, technical books are worthless. 

I once helped the Environmental Protection Agency install WordPerfect’s email system. It was a huge project and I did an amazing job on it. Years later, the only remnant of my work was that certain backup servers still carried my name. Computer systems are built and then rebuilt. But, they do not last.

But, what do I make?

I have what I call “The Hundred Year Test.” Basically, it means that when faced with a decision or a situation, I think, “100 years from now, how important will the results of this decision be?” Very few things rise to the level of being important enough to still be remembered a century from now. 

As the United States Constitution was being finalized, Benjamin Franklin was asked, “What have we got a republic or a monarchy?” Benjamin Franklin replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Oson Scott Card, wrote a fictionalization history of America. In his story Benjamin Franklin was asked what he made. “All I ever made was Americans,” was his answer.

During the Gettysburg Address, President Lincoln said, “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here.” Whether he was being intentionally self-deprecating, I can with assurance state that the world will little note,,nor long remember the scribblings I post here daily. I have no doubt they will become so much digital detritus. No doubt quickly dismissed by future generations of Internet archeologists. No, this blog, while important to me, and those who choose to come read it occasionally, won’t be a lasting contribution to the world. It’s not what I make.

I like my job. I think I do important work. And yet, 100 years from now, no one will even remember my name in connection with the companies I’m working with. Even 10 years from now, the work I’m doing today will most likely be forgotten. At the very least it will have been replaced. My work is not what I make.
Readers of this blog know that I spend a lot of time working on an old Lexus ES300. I’m currently tearing it apart to replace a head gasket. I enjoy the process. It’s part repair, part hobby. But, 100 years from now, the car will not even be a good antique. My hours of tinkering under the hood will be forgotten, along with the Iron Man paint scheme. My car is not what I make.

I’m working on a book of poetry. Part of the challenge is that the poems are very personal. I’m trying to figure out how to edit them in a way that maintains the privacy of the individuals I’ve written about, but still makes the poems, songs, really, available to be shared. That might be important 100 years from now. At least it might be important to my grandchildren and great grandchildren. That book, if I can finish it, is something that I make. 

As my signature block mentions, I have thirteen children. Many of them, in fact, most of them, are adopted. I didn’t make them in the sense of sharing their DNA. However, I have raised each of them, with the help of my lovely wife, to be adults and young adults. Two of them are married. Two of them have children of their own. All of them are good people that I’m proud of. One hundred years from now, I expect that there will still be children of my children living, breathing, loving and working. As I look back on the things I’ve done in my life, the things I’ve made, I think the only one of any real importance is my family. It’s the only thing that I’m sure will pass the 100 Year Test. To the extent that my writing, or songs, or stories survive my mortality, I believe it will only be in the context of those descendants. 

What do I make? 

Like Taylor Mali says in his poem, I make a difference. I would add, I make a family.

What about you?

What Teachers Make
by Taylor Mali

He says the problem with teachers is
What’s a kid going to learn
from someone who decided his best option in life
was to become a teacher?
He reminds the other dinner guests that it’s true
what they say about teachers:
Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.
I decide to bite my tongue instead of his
and resist the temptation to remind the dinner guests
that it’s also true what they say about lawyers.
Because we’re eating, after all, and this is polite conversation.

I mean, you’re a teacher, Taylor.
Be honest. What do you make?

And I wish he hadn’t done that— asked me to be honest—
because, you see, I have this policy about honesty and ass-­?kicking:
if you ask for it, then I have to let you have it.
You want to know what I make?
I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional Medal of Honor
and an A-­? feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time
with anything less than your very best.
I make kids sit through 40 minutes of study hall
in absolute silence. No, you may not work in groups.
No, you may not ask a question.
Why won’t I let you go to the bathroom?
Because you’re bored.
And you don’t really have to go to the bathroom, do you?
I make parents tremble in fear when I call home:
Hi. This is Mr. Mali. I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,
I just wanted to talk to you about something your son said today.
To the biggest bully in the grade, he said,
“Leave the kid alone. I still cry sometimes, don’t you?
It’s no big deal.”
And that was noblest act of courage I have ever seen.
I make parents see their children for who they are
and what they can be.

You want to know what I make? I make kids wonder,
I make them question.
I make them criticize.
I make them apologize and mean it.
I make them write.
I make them read, read, read.
I make them spell definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful, definitely beautiful
over and over and over again until they will never misspell
either one of those words again.
I make them show all their work in math
and hide it on their final drafts in English.
I make them understand that if you’ve got this,
then you follow this,
and if someone ever tries to judge you
by what you make, you give them this.

Here, let me break it down for you, so you know what I say is true:
Teachers make a goddamn difference! Now what about you?

You can see Taylor deliver his poem here

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2016 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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