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The Key to Learning

by Chick Moorman

"I don't want anyone to see me changing clothes."

That's the way my grandson Austin expressed his concern about finding a private place to change from his Tae Quon Do uniform to work clothes recently. Coming from an 11-year-old boy, that seemed to me like a reasonable wish. Then he took it to another level: "So I guess I won't be able to help you clean the horse stalls today." Not exactly a reasonable conclusion.

We were in the middle of our Wednesday ritual: Austin's Tae Quon Do lesson followed by a trip to the horse barn for stall cleaning, then a return home for dinner. Austin typically changes his clothes in the restroom at the barn on those Wednesdays. But this day, the key to the restroom was missing, so his regular clothes-changing place was unavailable.

"Change in the tack room," I suggested.

"Someone might see me," came his response.

"Use the front seat of the truck," I offered, figuring the problem was now solved.

"What if one of the other boarders pulls up while I'm changing?" Austin asked.

Fighting off the urge to explain that boarders of either sex would not be the least bit interested in checking out an 11-year-old's underwear, I bit my tongue and trotted out one of my favorite Parent Talk phrases.

"Austin, you always have more choices than you think you have."

"Can't think of any," he responded.

"Then let's think of some together," I suggested, as we began to walk down the aisle between the stalls. "You always have more choices than you think you have. How about changing in one of the stalls?"

"Someone might come," he responded.

Our walk moved outdoors, as at least one of us continued to search for options.

When I spotted my horse trailer, I knew I had the perfect solution. "You can change in the trailer," I said, and I handed Austin the keys. "Close the door behind you and no one will see."

I showed him which key opened the trailer door and then began cleaning the first stall, assured that my grandson would soon be joining me. Several minutes passed. Then more minutes passed. I finished one stall and began another. I was about to look for Austin when he entered the barn, still wearing his Tae Quon Do uniform.

"Grandpa, the key didn't fit and it broke off," he informed me. Not fully believing what I had just heard, I examined the key. Sure enough, half of it was missing. Thankfully, my curiosity rose faster than my frustration.

"Show me what happened," I suggested.

The broken key turned out to be the result of a classic case of miscommunication mingled with false assumptions. I had assumed Austin knew to use the key in the side door of the horse trailer, the one that led to the changing room. He had figured the key went to the padlock on the back door where the horses enter. The key fit the padlock just well enough to create the illusion in Austin's mind that if he kept pushing, the key would eventually open the padlock. He kept pushing. But hard as he pushed, the key wouldn't go in any farther. So he switched to turning. When the lock still wouldn't open, he turned harder.

Austin apparently wanted to go into the trailer more than the key wanted to go into the lock. The key broke.

At times like these, I believe it's best to assume things happen for a reason. Perhaps there was a lesson here. Better to focus on learning lessons than to concentrate on what could have been or should have been.

"What did you learn during that lock situation with the horse trailer?" I asked on the drive home.

"If it doesn't fit, don't force it," Austin replied.

Good thinking, I thought to myself. Better late than never, I couldn't help but add. At the dinner table, Chelsea (Austin's 14-year-old sister), Austin, and I talked about the key.

"Tell Chelsea what you learned today," I suggested.

"If it doesn't fit, don't force it," Austin repeated for his sister.

"I wonder where else in our lives we could use that advice?" I queried.

The answers came fast and furious. "In social groups," offered Chelsea.

"Doing a jigsaw puzzle," replied Austin. Other answers included using a computer, trying to be someone you are not, trying to lift something that is too heavy for you, reading ahead in your reader when the teacher wants everyone on the same page, and parking a car in a space that's too small for it.

Austin got out of helping with the stalls that Monday. I could have made him change his clothes in the truck. I could have made him change in a stall. I could have insisted he change in the tack room. I could have forced the issue. But then we wouldn't have learned not to force it if it doesn't fit.