Nonstandard but Effective Tooling

Nov 13, 2018

In college, I was an RA for a year. Being an RA at Carleton was pretty different than it was at other schools; I was more like a counselor and resource than an enforcer, and the job description did not include breaking up parties or busting kids for drinking.

The job description did include some fairly mundane administrative stuff. I had to put signs on the restrooms at the beginning of the year, based on whether the floor residents decided to go unisex or not (they did not, so I labeled them “MYN” and “WIMMIN”). I had to organize floor meetings to pass along residential news and allow the Airing of Grievances. I had access to a master key in case somebody locked themselves out of their room.

And then there was the smoke alarm test.

Once a quarter, I was required by law to go around and test every room’s smoke alarm to make sure nobody burned to death. Most RA’s were tall or normal-ish height, so all they did was stroll from room to room, reach up and hit the button just over the doorway, and they were done with the whole floor in maybe ten minutes.

I’m 5’5”, so my process was more like this:

  • Knock on somebody’s door. This person was almost invariably trying to work, and mildly annoyed that I’d interrupted them.
  • Ask if I could test their smoke detector.
  • Ask if I could borrow their chair to stand on.
  • Wait while they removed textbooks, bras, beer cans, etc., from said chair.
  • Drag the chair across the room.
  • Climb up undignifiedly onto the chair, which had rocker legs and thus was not an ideal substrate.
  • Possibly fall down.
  • Press the button and wait.
  • Endure the terrible screeching noise.
  • Replace the chair.
  • Thank the resident, who had been staring at me the whole time, for their help.

Repeated thirty times, this got pretty onerous; but salvation was at hand.

Among Carleton’s stranger claims to fame is that it is the place where Reformed Druidism was established in the 1970s (supposedly by students who were frustrated by the requirement for students to attend chapel every Sunday). One of my floor residents, as it turns out, was the Archdruidess Rebecca, who typically was vested in a really fantastic cloak.

When I did the smoke alarm tests during my first quarter, I’d tested ten or twelve alarms and gotten thoroughly annoyed by the experience, and then I walked into Rebecca’s room. I said, “I’m really sorry, but I’m short—could I use your chair?”

She replied, “Would you like to borrow my staff, instead?”

It was a stout, six- or seven-foot long, polished branch of silver wood. I’m no arborist, but I like to think that it was oak. She handed it to me; I took it with great reverence and poked at her smoke alarm with it. It was precisely the right rigidity, girth, and weight to press that strange little button with, and I audibly said “Yay,” when the alarm went off.

I looked at her, bemused. “Thank you, this made my job so much easier. I never would have presumed, or even thought, to borrow it.”

“You’re welcome to use it for the rest of the rooms, if you like!”

So I went from room to room, bearing the Archdruidess’ grand staff. I would gently thump the head of the staff on the resident’s door, walk in without explaining myself and with an air of great seriousness, trigger their smoke alarm in a manner both ergonomic and paganistic, and walk out without a word, the resident staring after me in mild alarm.

I think this is the only time in my life that I encountered a tool that not only made a difficult task easy, but also turned it into a piece of performance art. And it birthed a small strange tradition; once a quarter, I would make the twenty-yard pilgrimage to the Archdruidess’ room, receive from her the symbol of her station, and bring the good news of fire safety to my flock.


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