What Extravagantly Extroverted Teenagers Can Teach

Wednesday began the technical sessions, and my life became considerably more social. I had met a guy named Mark who worked less than a block away from me at Harvard; amusing how travel of 3,000 miles is sometimes needed to make up for institutional divisions at home. The crew of new folks from the parties and sessions was slowly expanding around me, and I was feeling much less disconnected from the conference. When you sit in the hallways and watch, the great middle passes by barely noticed, while the more extreme examples of weird stick out.

I began to think more of the last day, the social maelstrom, in a constructive manner less hazed by gin and tonic. The SAGE exec board had reportedly suffered through a 10 hour meeting over two days this past weekend. I thought about the callousness combined with joviality that marked the parties and the presiding Mafia.

No meeting of 10 hours is going to be productive or necessary. So that is the first thing my students can teach SAGE; of time limits and restraints in debate. I get the feeling that a single exec member can hold up an entire idea simply by disagreeing with it; that while officially a 6-1 vote should pass a motion, the 1 can filibuster simply by never shutting up. I wonder if they’d like a moderator, or at least someone to write some standard rules of procedure for them to use.

After thinking so, I keep slipping and referring to the conference as “the tournament”. The feel is very similar, with less rushing around and fewer surprises. However, after a year and change on the MFL board, I have renewed respect for what the we do in contrast to SAGE.

SAGE appears to spend quite some time talking about talking about things and deciding to decide and other such meta-activity. There is a lot of talk of reaching out to a large but apathetic membership, but only tentative efforts that fail — perhaps through their tentativeness, not their intrinsic value. Maybe it’s time to start a dozen subcommittees or projects and be unafraid to let ten of them fail.

At any rate, the MFL in all its hideous glory manages to directly run three tournaments a year, advise eight or so others, implement rules changes, interface with a national league, encourage new members and growth, and its members still have time to coach, prepare, and manage our own individual chapters and speech leagues.

Many of my ideas came together at the SAGE community meaning that night. Community meeting is a misnomer; it was a presentation by the exec and a chance for questions afterwards. It’s sink or swim time, now; SAGE is a little more separate from the mothership, and has to make itself real.

Then, just as we should have started the sidestroke, a semantic discussion about lobbying from people who wouldn’t know US political realities if they walked in wearing a name badge and four ribbons broke out. Sysadmins sometimes thrive on breadth of knowledge, but I have serious doubts anyone who claimed to know how to approach Congressmen actually did. A fair amount of the trouble was format — free for alls without end are never a good idea. The meeting was run like a paper talk.

However, they’re not papers, they are political functions. Political is a dirty word in this community. But my teenaged students gather every weekend to debate the merits of programs and legislation. They are given three minutes to speak their piece, which encourages them to come up with substantive, structured remarks and not free-for-alls with little to back them. When the crowd doesn’t want to hear it anymore, they can vote it done and move on.

When the SAGE crowd didn’t want to hear it anymore, they filtered out the back or opened their laptops to check their email or stock quotes. I looked up to see if the Celtics were playing; they were, and Vin Baker’s probably soon to fail renaissance continued into the regular season. That was the highlight of the night. I have never seen a group that large attempt a meeting without any form or structure. I have also never seen a meeting that produced more quiet grumbling.

I hesitated to say anything on the microphone; my interesting history makes me pause, and I don’t quite know how to be a more public figure without stirring up old stories best left behind. But not only did I know that I could have fixed half the troubles with the meeting with a stopwatch, a gavel, and a bad attitude, I knew that at least a dozen high schoolers I teach or judge could have done the same.

A Chinese literary school in the early 1920s revived ancient forms of verse and poetry that had been abandoned after the forms stagnated in the previous century under the repressive culture of the Manchu Dynasty. They revived the forms and put creative ideas into them, which the Manchu poets had failed to do, as a way of sparking creativity, which did indeed follow. Direction and restrictions made them innovate to pack meaning into small spaces. Their elegant term for it was “dancing in fetters.”

I wonder if the difference isn’t a realization that sysadmins are predisposed to ignore. I see good personalities, interesting folks, people who are great to talk to and listen to among the Established Crowd and beyond. However, I didn’t see much attention for group dynamics. I haven’t ever seen bigger tensions go blithely ignored like that before. Hints, subtext, posture, emotions — all sort of flew around looking desperately to be noticed.

CFL nationals last spring was one of the hardest weekends of my life. But when Josh needed to talk alone, everyone cleared out of the room, more or less. When Jared needed a moment to chill out, people left us in the corner and didn’t butt in. When Meredith and Alyssa needed turns on the temporary couch, Jonathan instantly grabbed the Washington Post and sat out in the hallway, uncomfortable and tired.

On Wednesday of SAGE, a great conversation I was having with Mark was cut short when drunken Scandinavians suddenly invaded the area of the pool patio we were sitting in. I asked Geoff, who seemed haggard and tired and not just because of a lack of sleep, if he was doing all right. I made sure to pitch it in that serious, “I don’t want a polite answer, I want a real one” voice. I hope it did good. Later, I realized Trey had been doing the same thing. So I was not alone.

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