It’s a small thing, really, for a man to teach a boy to tie a tie. It’s one of those unnecessary yet essential life skills for guys: to learn the technique of making a Windsor knot with a piece of silk that strangles your neck.
But tie a tie we must. Eighth grader Alan was to play the lead of Charlie Gordon in our middle school production of “Flowers for Algernon,” that remarkable tale of a man who is mentally retarded yet, through surgery perfected on a mouse named Algernon, acquires an IQ of 200-plus, only to regress to his original IQ over time. A tragic tale of hope and loss, “Flowers for Algernon” plays perfectly to young adolescent emotions. For Alan, a sensitive young man with a stunning mind, the role of Charlie was destined to be his. He won it fairly, but without much competition; other students knew that the role was Alan’s to lose.
“I got the lead, Mr. D.!” Alan gushed as he entered my classroom the day after the cast was announced. “My first play ever, and I get the lead!”
Once the initial excitement ebbed and play practice began, Alan remarked to me that the role would entail many changes in personality and emotion. What was most frightening of all, though, was that Alan would have to tie a tie on stage in front of an audience.
“I don’t even own a tie,” he said, “let alone know how to knot one up. And a suit? My mom wants me to wait until I stop growing before she’ll buy me one.” Alan’s concerns didn’t imply that he wanted to abandon the role; by no means. Still, his middle school insecurities showed through. I could tell that he was worried.
“What size are you?” I asked.
“You know … waist and pants’ length. When you buy jeans, what size do you buy?”
“Thirty-six waist and 32 length,” responded this 13-year-old who’s 6-foot-2.
“Same as me,” I said. “And I do own a suit. Let me bring it in and see if it fits you.”
Feeling both awkward with my invitation yet satisfied with its legitimacy, I brought in my sole suit—a gray one—the next day. Alan met me during lunch and spied my suit with interest and envy.
“Go in the bathroom and try it on, Alan. If it doesn’t fit, we’ll think of something else.”
Minutes later, Alan returned to my classroom—white shirt, gray suit, and an open collar. The suit fit him better than it ever fit me.
“No tie?” I questioned, knowing this was Alan’s unhurdled hurdle.
“Not yet,” he said, “but Mr. Wells already gave me permission to miss his class so you could teach me how to make one.” He grinned: “I know you’ve got a free period coming up.” As usual, Alan had thought ahead.
He might have learned to tie a tie from his father, but his dad’s frequent absence from his son’s daily life didn’t allow for such essential frivolities. I took up this task, inherited by default.
Taking off my necktie and handing Alan his own, I thought a “shadowing experience” would be ideal. “Watch me, then do what I do,” I explained as we stood side by side. “You’ll have a great knot in no time at all.”
I wrapped the long end of my untethered tie over the fingers of my left hand, inserting its tip through the loop I’d made. Alan followed precisely; this was going to be easy. As I tugged on my tie’s end, creating a knot, I raised it to my chin. Voilà! One fine tie.
I looked to Alan. Despite following every direction, he had tied a knot that was the size of his fist, with the long and short ends the inverse lengths they were supposed to be.
Alan looked down at his creation: “I look like a circus clown.”
(Actually, he did.)
“We’ll try again, Alan. Hey … at least you got a knot.”
He glanced at me with a “don’t placate me” look. He knew that his tie was a monster of exaggeration.
Together, we practiced some more knots. Each attempt Alan made resulted in some hybrid version of a Windsor, but none of them approximated anything you’d wear in public.
“It’s my fingers! They’re too big!” Alan complained. “Ugh! I hate my genes!”
“It’s not your fingers or your genes. This’ll take some practice, but I guarantee you’ll get it. That’s a promise.”
For Alan, a gifted student for whom most tasks were completed well on first attempt, tying a tie became a frustrating challenge. Ten, 20, 30 attempts later, progress was still elusive. With time drawing short, I gave Alan a choice: Take the tie home and practice, or return tomorrow during lunch for another lesson.
“I’ll do both,” he said.
As I drove home that afternoon, I wondered if Alan was standing at his bathroom mirror, even now, trying on his own to tie his tie. If so, he was probably uttering words inappropriate for school. Memorizing his many lines, and rehearsing the nuanced reactions to portray as Charlie Gordon metamorphosed from handicapped to high-functioning was easy compared to this physical task of making a knot. How appropriate, I thought, that Alan would struggle with something that came so readily to others. This would add even more texture to his performance as Charlie.
The next day, Alan arrived, tie in hand, ready to ring in for Round 2. His practice session at home helped some—he now wrapped his tie around two fingers, not three—and after more attempts and frustrations, something resembling an acceptable knot appeared around Alan’s neck.
“Take it off … do it again,” I urged. He did … and he did.
“Knot it with your eyes closed.” It worked.
“Try it with my tie—it’s made from thicker cloth.” Three attempts later, the knot looked fine.
It was official: Alan had learned to tie a tie.
The school play was a huge hit, with Alan getting a standing ovation from even the too-cool-to-care 7th graders forced to watch his performance. And as Alan took his final bow on closing night, his tie now discarded as an unneeded prop, I realized that this was the reason I became a teacher almost 30 years ago: to tie ties, and untangle their knots, one Alan at a time.