Team Nicholas, or How to Build a Learning Machine

Today, for the first time ever, I will share my recipe for constructing an award winning high school graduate.  Why? you may ask.  In two words, the answer is:  Scholarship Grants.

Ah, I see I have your attention.  Like my family, you’d do most anything to keep from making student loan payments well into your eighties.  While the age may be a bit of an exaggeration, I’m sure you know exactly what I mean.


It’s a long road to get to college.  No child should be expected to go it alone.  Learning is hard work, and if he has a “go-to” person as his teammate who will listen, give some feedback, and will offer assistance if needed, the A grade doesn’t seem so far out of reach.

My own teammate is half-way through the ninth grade and his future looks promising.  Now, I know you’re thinking I may be a bit premature in giving my program the hard-sell when the kid hasn’t yet made it through the college application process.  However, his freshman mid-terms are looking real good.  And he is past the mind-numbing self-doubt caused by navigating through the phases of eighth grade big man on campus and high school scum bag freshman.

Two other factors in jumping the gun are:

  • Recently, I reached the ripe old age of seventy-five and don’t want to postpone teaching this course until I’m too fragile to do it, or have dementia (of which I yet have no signs, but as the minutes tick by, who knows?).
  • I feel strongly that time is of the essence. The full training course will take twelve to fifteen years, and a future college student in your life may be the right age to begin.

Don’t worry.  It’s not as daunting as it appears.  I will act as your guide to begin and then continue to be a resource to you until your team is up and running and your course is set.  As you make progress, you will see the exciting future of your young teammate take shape.

Oh, one more note before we begin:

I will refer to the student as “the kid” or “he” for no other reason than my own teammate is a boy whom the family often refers to as “the kid.”  For the purpose of this training, we will assume at the beginning that the child is somewhere between three and four years of age.  If the kid is older, don’t lose heart.  You and I can work together to discover a way to accomplish team development.

The Adult Team Member

Self-selection is the first and best process for identifying the ideal adult with total commitment to the project.  To act as successful Team Member, a person must have the time, inclination, unconditional the love for the child and a special feeling about education.

That doesn’t mean the decision is solely up to the adults in the kid’s life.  No way.  Successful completion of the next step is mandatory for any adult to continue as Team Member.

Come Together as a Team

By now, you know your little guy pretty well.  You know he likes cookies and doesn’t like naps.  You provide treats, trade hugs and give compliments.  You even present him with a miniature school desk in which he can hide all his secret treasures, and to which only he is allowed access.

Although it is a good beginning, this is not a team.

Your first activity will be to qualify as the perfect team member for the kid’s team.

To begin the process, secure the kid in his car seat and drive away together to run a couple of short errands.  I emphasize the word “Short.”  To the bank.  To the post office.  Not to the grocery store – unless it is an off-day and you need only one or two items such as milk and cookies.

As you approach your first intersection, gently apply your brakes to slow to a stop, point at the stop sign and shout, “What does that sign say?”

The kid may be too stunned to answer, but even if he starts to say something, you yell, “S-T-O-P!  Stop!  Yay!” and pump a fist into the air.  This is guaranteed to startle the daylights out of the kid.  But in his book:  loud plus unexpected equal interesting.  Don’t worry if you have interrupted or scared him, he will let you know.  You must listen carefully to his reprimand and apologize if he scolds you.  But, do not change the act other than to add diversity.

On your way to your errand, find a few more stop signs and repeat the cheer.  Add the color red to your S-T-O-P act and cheer like anything.  Fist pumping is advised.

Add a stoplight to the program if your city is lucky enough to have one.  Add a cow, a car, a truck.  You get the drift.  Don’t forget to cheer.  From time to time, the kid may join in.  This is good.  Hear it, but don’t focus on it.  Not yet.

Stay on your toes.  It is okay if your routine is expected as long as you don’t let it become boring.  Most important of all, never demand an answer.  Let him figure things out.  This is team building, not a test.

Then, one day you and the kid are your way to town.  Your mind is occupied with something unrelated to him.  Totally absorbed in your thoughts, you approach a stop sign and slow the car.  Behind you, the kid yells, “S-T-O-P!  Stop!  Yay!” and pumps a fist into the air.

Startled beyond measure, you slam on the brakes.  Your neck jerks and your head bobs.  You have completely lost your train of thought.  But you have your two man Team with a capital T!  Nothing is more important at that moment.  You both know it and you cheer like crazy, fists pumping up and down.

Starting Out

Now, here is where things get interesting.  Why wouldn’t they?  This is life.

In no particular order, I will present activities which can get your team started.  From this, you will gather ideas about undertakings your own team may pursue.

As you begin the program, start small.  Sit on the floor in the family room, or in chairs on the back deck, or take a walk in the neighborhood.  (Perhaps on the walk, the kid can ride his bike or his scooter.  You will need to be ready to run and to take any protective measures needed.)

Read a short story.  Most importantly, talk about stuff.  You don’t have to look hard to find a particular item or circumstance which will generate thinking and problem solving techniques.  Ideas are all around you and the kid.

For instance:

  • The family room is a great place. Great-grandma is a wondrous person who tells stories and has magical things on her chairside table. In her cedar box of fascinating fingernail care equipment, she has a battery operated, vibrating fingernail file. By her chair, she has a handmade cane of white wood with natural brown spots shaped like diamonds. She is very interested in all the secret stuff the kid has in his desk.
  • From the deck, you see a hummingbird performing a dance to entertain his mate who is unseen and sits on a nest of eggs.
  • In the neighborhood, workers are putting a new roof on a house.
  • On a walk in the park, you see mushrooms, ducks in a pond, trees with ivy crawling up them, and you walk behind the zoo and peek through the fence to see wild animals.

First Day of School

At about the team’s two year mark, it will be time for the kid to attend public school.  It’s a good thing if your teammate follows another child into that institution, especially if she had a positive experience.   At any rate, a visit to the classroom a short time before the beginning of the school year is mandatory.  During the visit, the kid gives his teammate a guided tour of his new sphere, and in the process of doing so, he becomes owner of his education. This is very important.

The second mandatory event is the first day of school.  Although this is not usually considered a family event, I will argue that it is.  As he enters for the first official time, the kid should lead the way through the front door and he should be attended by the following:

  • His father who drives him to school in the company truck,
  • His mother who drives the family car and who will pick him up after school,
  • His teammate who drives her own car and brings the dog along, and who may sometimes pick him up after school, and,
  • His great-grandmother who rides along with his teammate. She will wait in the car with the dog.

So what if the traffic is congested?  The principal will simply have to live with it.  Four adults, three automobiles and a dog form an entourage the kid deserves on this most important day.  It is worth every little inconvenience.  Even if you’re the one who has to park a block and a half away to accomplish the task.  It’s something that must be done.

Throughout his school career, every event on the school calendar is mandatory for family and teammate.  There are no exceptions.

Topics Covered by the Team

In addition to the basic subjects below, your team will discover many areas of interest.  I’m thinking of many more I could include.  However, I wouldn’t want to deny your team the pleasure of discovering your own areas of interesting study.  Please consider these merely as a starting place.

Everyone Works.  From the beginning, we all have our chores.  Some we like, and some we don’t like so much.  Early on, your teammate helps set the table for snacks and/or lunch, and he helps put things away afterward.  He takes great-grandma’s walking stick to her.  As part of the team, you keep the stick from conking her on the head.  He guides her to the table, with you walking close behind them to assure everything goes well.  And, of course, it does.

Here are some ideas concerning work:

  • As time passes and the child gains a little age and experience, get ready to investigate real work. You know, the activity with machines and stuff. One sunny morning, and periodically over many days to follow, your team sits on the back deck to watch as the new water tower is constructed a block and a half away. In the mode of serious discussion, you talk about what the guy operating the crane must be saying to the guy who guides the hook. You discuss the job of the man atop the structure and what he must be saying while he waves his arm in a large circle.
  • On another day, your team takes doughnuts to the kid’s dad who stops his own work and invites his crew and his son to share in the bounty. The guys talk about what hard work it is to build a house.
  • And then comes the day to prepare the back yard for building the studio. Your teammate works with his dad to take down the metal garden shed which the kid, when he was really little, helped to construct. You do the fetching and carrying while the kid hands tools to his dad and puts nuts and bolts in plastic bags. Then you watch proudly as your teammate rides the Bearcat tractor with his dad. The kid grins as he operates the bucket and moves dirt from here to there.

When everyone is tired from working so hard, you serve refreshments.

Know Your World.  We occupy only a tiny part of an immense world.  The kid doesn’t grow up knowing this.  It takes teaching.  We need to study our own part of the world and how it relates to all the rest.

Here are ideas on how to begin:

  • Study the compass rose on the marina boardwalk. Talk about directions. When the kid is very young, the discussion is a simple one, but as time goes on, he will tell you what he knows and you can help him expand on it. For example, when you are there to watch the sunset on a summer evening when the kid is older, point out the full moon coming up on the opposite side of the sky. Talk about how this happens.
  • On another walk down the boardwalk, study the relief map of the world at the far end of the walk. Watch as the kid runs from country to country and learns the names. In the beginning, cheering and fist pumping make it fun.
  • Talk about the moon and high tide and low tide. But do this when it’s actually happening. For instance, at low tide, you might point out a rat on a rock. (The kid will love this and you’ll tell him perhaps he shouldn’t tell his dad, but he does, and then you have to deal with that.) When he sees the rat, talk about the tunnels it builds and how it knows how to build them so they don’t flood at high tide. Interview a construction guy who is working on the boardwalk. Have the kid ask him if he has seen rats in his work. Indeed, he has, and he will tell you all about them.

At the end of the walk, enjoy ice cream from the new shop near the end of the dock.


Of all the jobs you have done or will do, the job of teammate to a kid is the best job you ever will have.  It will test you, occupy your thoughts and take up your time.  But, you will reap rewards at odd times in strange shapes, like when he shows you the secret stuff in his desk, when he makes his first video, his first band concert and when he accepts his first diploma.  At each of these occasions and more, your heart is full and your vision temporarily is blurred.

Before I leave you, there is one topic I should have mentioned:

Good Idea vs. Bad Idea, handy for team member safety.  A good idea would be holding hands while crossing the street.  An example of a bad idea is climbing up on a bench in order to jump off onto a concrete boardwalk.  I remember in the early days we had conversations like this:

Me:  What do you think?  Was that a good idea or a bad idea?

The Kid, hopeful:  A good idea?

Me:  What makes it good?

The Kid, doubtful:  It’s fun?

Me, thoughtful:  Hmm, I guess I have to think about that.  I have a question for you.

The Kid, guarded:  What?

Me:  Is something that could hurt a person a good thing?

The Kid, thinking:  No.

Me:  Do you think a person jumping off a bench onto a concrete dock could get himself hurt?

The Kid, smiling:  Maybe, but not me.

Me, thinking that it never goes like you hope it will:  Well, I need to make an executive decision, here.  I declare it a bad idea to climb on a bench and jump off it onto the concrete walk.

The Kid, still smiling, takes my hand and we are not even crossing the street.


One thought on “Team Nicholas, or How to Build a Learning Machine

  1. As a former teammate, I love this. I teamed with many kids in my lifetime … One in particular I was able to team with from 2nd grade to 10th grade. I so agree, it’s one of the most important and best jobs I’ve ever done. It’s an investment that keeps on giving.

    Liked by 1 person

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