The Story of a Successful Learner

Yesterday (or several days ago) I wrote about success as the element of learning that trumps lazy. By success, I mean learning that accomplishes a meaningful goal, as opposed to one that achieves an external and often symbolic outcome. This morning, I thought of a classic example.

1977 Toyota Corolla

After my first year of teaching, I traded in my aging Fiat station wagon for a brand new 1977 Toyota Corolla.  It cost $2,700 and was a wonderful car; drivetrain, chassis, body and four wheels – basic transportation that I kept tuned myself.  It cranked every time and never failed to get me to work or to Arizona or wherever I was going.  Until four years later.

The starter motor would turn, but the engine simply would not engage.  However, if I left it alone for about a half hour, it would start right up.  This didn’t happen every time I used the car, but each time it did, the pattern was the same.  I took it to a number of auto repair establishments, but, as is always the case, it would start flawlessly.  

I remember as if it was today, a rather short stocky fellow, slipping his Exxon cap off as he leaned under the hood and with grease- and tobacco-stained fingers, flipped open a plastic box that was mounted to the wheel well.  Seated into a circuit board were several microchips.  He said, “That’s your problem.  I don’t know what that is, but that’s your problem.”

The car cranked right up and I drove back home.  It was the next day that I was telling this story to a teacher friend, outside our rooms, during class change.  Several students were lingering close by, including a young man we’ll call Bobby.

I can picture him today; a good looking kid, tall, straight as an arrow, curly back hair and day-old stubble (before it was cool), and the broadening chest and shoulders that come to some boys as early as 15.  ..and he was still in the 7th grade. 

Ignition Coil for a 1977 Toyota Corolla

From the other side of the radiator he said something that I didn’t understand.  My teacher friend asked him to repeat and he said almost clearly, “h’it’s yer cule mista Warlick.”  

After engaging him in something similar to a conversation, I got that my coil was the problem.  An ignition coil is “an induction coil in an automobile’s ignition system which transforms the battery’s low voltage to the thousands of volts needed to create an electric spark in the spark plugs to ignite the fuel.1

This was better advice I’d gotten from any of the trained and experienced auto mechanics I’d consulted, so that afternoon I stopped off at Advance Auto, bought an ignition coil for a Corolla, installed it myself, and the car ran without fail until I sold it a couple of years and 95 thousand miles later for $2,300.

I’d never taught Bobby, but I knew that the teachers liked him, one of those guys they didn’t mind holding back year after year.  I told the story to another friend, whom I respected deeply, a woman who’d taught Bobby for all of these years, and she said,

“Don’t worry about Bobby.  His Dad owns a trucking company that hauls trees to the pulp wood plant.  He’s a millionaire, though you’d never know if you saw him.  Bobby’s going to go work for his Dad when he turns 16 and he’ll inherit the business.  He’s not dumb, he’s just lazy, and he always will be when it comes to learning.”

I don’t know what happened to Bobby.  I do know that pulp wood played out in the region, and Bobby’s business either folded, or he found some way to repurpose his assets into another line of business.

What I do know is that Bobby was not a lazy learner.  That he was able to diagnose the problem with my car, just from the telling of my story, convinces me that he engaged in deep and powerful learning experiences that taught him not only fundamentals, but how to apply those fundamentals for solving real problems.  

They were learning experiences that were qualified by


not by a SCORE.

Ignition coil. (2013, March 15). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 11:16, May 17, 2013, from

Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.