Grease the quiet wheel

There’s a 480-square foot carriage house apartment above our garage that we rent to a lovely redhead named Natalie (I chose her out of the several people who’d expressed interest in renting for several reasons, but mostly because she used a semicolon correctly a few times in our early correspondence, and that in and of itself is a recommendation). A few weeks ago she texted to say that her keyhole was jammed and she couldn’t get into the apartment. A mere hour or so later, a delightful character of a locksmith showed up on that Sunday afternoon, and after he cleaned the mechanism, he kindly offered a pragmatic bit of homeowner advice. He suggested that, twice a year or so, we spray WD-40 in all of the external keyholes at our home and lock and unlock the doors with the key a few times, wiping it on a rag in between twists in the doorknob, to prevent this problem from recurring. “These keyholes are like dirt magnets,” he said, “I don’t know why, but it’s like they’re asking for it.”

We recently we had our virtual parent-teacher conference with my son’s fourth-grade teacher (whom he described as “amazing” after the first day of school, by the way). She’s new to our school this year and didn’t know him at all, so we were trying to give her a little bit of history on him pertaining to his learning profile, social patterns, and past experiences in school. I was explaining how he’s one of those kids who doesn’t make a lot of negative noise; he doesn’t act up or break rules or complain or exhibit many outward signs of displeasure. He doesn’t clamor for attention in the ways many kids do, and, as a former teacher myself, I know how kids who need focused, pointed attention but don’t seem like they do can get a little lost sometimes. It’s the kids who cooperate, who are easygoing and friendly to everyone, who epitomize those famously pedestrian adjectives like “nice” and “good”and practice seemingly habitual pleasantness–these are the kids who are often easy to overlook, particularly when there are scads of others sneaking snacks and interrupting and showing off and poking each other and pilfering pencils and generally acting needy. Not until I experienced this from the perspective of a parent did I fully appreciate what’s really going on with the “easy” kids: they’re asking for attention by acting well. As a teacher, I remember discussing the dynamics among students in an effort to decide the configuration of classes, and these were frequently the “filler kids” we’d wait to place until we’d separated and doled out all of the troublemakers and red flags (as we called them…I realize this is probably not a diplomatic moniker). Then we’d fill the “easy kids” around them, like padding around live wires. Buffer kids. Little Switzerlands with their hands raised, never to call anyone a name or so much as tap a rule on the shoulder. Listen, my kid IS this kid. Practically his biggest rebellion in his ten years was voluntarily wearing Sunday underwear on a Thursday a few weeks ago (and I was so proud!!). 

Kids like my perennially happy-go-lucky Liam need to be noticed but they ask for it by not asking for it. In the conference with his teacher, when describing the way some kids display their needs vocally or behaviorally, I said, “You know; the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Long after I closed down Zoom and got up to shoo the bunny away from trying to chew the buttons off the TV remote, that idiom still rang in my head, and soon I realized why: it’s just like the advice from the locksmith. If you wait until the problem needs to be addressed, it’s already a problem. When we put energy into maintaining things that are operating as they should, when we are proactive about preventing future breakdowns or malfunctions, we’re taking out insurance against disaster. This is why we clean the gutters and remove dead trees before they fall. This is why we schedule oil changes to our cars and drive around with those little cling-stickers on our windshields that hover in our peripheral vision as a reminder. My conversation with the locksmith pressed one of those little stickers onto the periphery of my brain: just because it isn’t making noise or acting faulty doesn’t mean it doesn’t need something. In fact, it needs something NOW, and if administered in advance, we can prevent the wheels from squeaking and the locks from sticking.

I’m going to pick up my kids today and pay extra attention to that well-behaved little boy. The WD-40 is still out on the kitchen island to remind me. But first I’d better call some people because I don’t remember the last time I changed a single air filter, and it’s been way too long since we’ve had the ducts cleaned.

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