Outsmarting the Puzzle Thief


So where do you stand on the puzzle continuum?  Are you more at the “I find them stimulating!” end or the “I would rather have by big toe bitten off than be required to work a puzzle” end?

I’m somewhere in the middle — no hatred for this classic past-time, yet no particular urge to seek out these visual challenges.

But when someone gets in the way of finishing a puzzle project once begun, I object.  There is nothing more dissatisfying than an unfinished puzzle.  Unfinished, that is, by one missing piece.

As an early childhood educator, I am accustomed to the experience of a missing puzzle piece — or pieces — the predictable result of  energetic use of materials in a classroom of young children.  One of the first teachers with whom I worked, and who supervised my second student-teaching experience — actually traced the outlines of all the puzzles in her room in order to track lost pieces.  She created cardboard versions of missing pieces from wooden 8-10 piece puzzles.  It was a noble effort at economy, but terribly disappointing, since the cardboard replacements never came close to the durability, and dare I say, artistry, of the original piece.

A few years ago, while teaching a class in early childhood math and science curriculum, I launched an activity aimed at helping students see practical applications of course concepts such as part-whole connections and spatial relationships.  Over several weeks, they would work on a 300-piece puzzle together.  I scheduled the last 10-15 minutes of class for this purpose, to finish the session on an active note, and in recognition that limited  assimilation of content is happening between 9 and 9:20pm  after a full day and 2 and 1/2 hours of class.

Hands Arranging Puzzle Pieces

Initially, there was a mixed reaction, not unlike I have experienced when putting students in small groups or asking them to play card games or board games.  Some truly enjoy these activities, while others are uncomfortable or admit to performance anxiety.  Encouraging cooperative efforts is a worthy pursuit, though, and they see the fruits of their efforts over time, especially with puzzles — even if they don’t become fans of the activity — which is not my goal.

During this first experience, one student expressed her concern that the puzzle, left on the table for anyone to access, might be sabotaged.  She worried that someone might lift a single piece, purposely preventing the project from completion.  Other students echoed her concern.  Their cynicism surprised me a little, yet we kept the puzzle on a table at the front of the classroom, and I posted a sign inviting participation.  The puzzle was actually completed on the last night of class that spring.

Fast forward to spring 2014, when a part-time instructor took on this class, and I passed along a puzzle I’d purchased a few months earlier when I was originally scheduled to teach this class.  She adopted the puzzle challenge, setting it up on a table at the front of the room, adjacent to the computer speakers and other tech equipment.

The 300-piece puzzle, depicting a hilly farm scene featuring a barn in the background, two kites floating lazily against the sky, and a white clapboard house in the foreground, was a reproduction of a Mary Ann Vessey painting.  I know nothing about this artist , and only purchased the puzzle for its comparative visual simplicity and inexpensive price.  The detail of the scene became readily apparent, of course, upon beginning the assembly.

The puzzle was about two-thirds complete at the end of that semester, the instructor sharing that she noted some students’ discomfort with the activity.  It remained in its unfinished state through the subsequent summer and fall semesters.

In January of this year, I returned to this classroom to teach a different class, two mornings each week.   There sat the puzzle, with large gaps in the sky and the tree tops, and a missing section of an area in front of the clapboard house.

That puzzle needed finishing.  It was getting under my skin.

Each morning, upon entering the room to set up for class, I worked on  it for a few minutes, delighting in placing 2-3 pieces of lime-green tree or black tree branch to the scene.   I invited my students to join me in the effort, encouraging them to play with it for a few minutes before the start of class.  Over time, a few approached it in pairs, adding 5-6 pieces to the puzzles.

I shared this goal with the same instructor who had returned to this classroom to again teach the math and science course one evening a week.   Her students joined the project.

I was hooked now, and determined to have this Simple Times puzzle completed.

Progress was slow.  I began fretting that maybe not all the pieces were there.  The concern expressed by my student a few years back crept into my thoughts.

Her words proved prophetic.  One morning, while going through some materials in the back of the classroom, I gently pulled on a TV tray table I’d propped upside down against the wall.  There, placed on a support piece on the bottom of the tray, was a piece from the puzzle.  A few minutes later I discovered a second piece, underneath a large poster board on an adjacent table.

I relayed my find to the evening instructor, who was equally astonished by this turn of events.

Now it was personal.  My arm-chair analysis of this act of petty vandalism gave way to  steel determination to have the final word.  I would beat the Puzzle Thief.  I would ensure that Simple Times was  finished by the end of February, and in so doing, honor the work of Mary Ann Vessey.

Work began in earnest.  I added 5 pieces to the puzzle the next morning, giddily sharing this accomplishment with my students.   A pair of female students logged 10 more.  Tree-tops were now discernible, and clouds began taking shape above the hills, yet the gaps remained large, with more than fifty pieces still unplaced. The evening math and science students continued our early-morning work.

Then, one Monday morning, I walked into the room and saw no stray pieces scattered on the table.  I bent closer, smiling at the thought that Simple Times had been completed.  I looked again.

A single piece  of sky was missing.

Hell damn spit.  We’d been beaten.  The Puzzle Thief had gotten  away with with the perfect puzzle crime of pilfering a single piece.

I launched a search for the missing sky, gently moving materials around on the table, crawling underneath along the carpeting, peering under the chairs and desks nearby, and even returning to the scene of the crime in the back of the classroom.  Nothing.

The math and science instructor confirmed that her students had “finished” the puzzle during their previous class, and they had been truly disappointed at the outcome.

In an effort to give it my best emotionally-intelligent response, I rationalized a triplet:  we’d all worked hard, an interest in the cooperative spirit of a collective goal had been inspired, and life doesn’t always give you what you want.

Forget that hooey.

I wanted that puzzle piece.  Every look at that amoeba-shaped hole deepened my indignation.

After staring for several seconds, I began a new search of the table, gently pulling forward the poster board supporting the nearly-finished creation, lifting the computer speakers, tipping the document camera upward to see if anything had been pushed underneath.  I stepped back and stared.

Walking back to the table, I bent to the side, delicately lifting one corner of the poster board.

There it was.

The sky piece glowed a milky blue as I slid it along the table with my forefinger.  As I cupped it in my palm, its light grew and grew until  beams of gold shot forth, streaming all around the room, bouncing off the ceiling, the walls, and the projector screen.  Trumpets sounded.  A choir of coloratura angels chanted hallelujahs.

I performed a brief, silent happy-dance with alternating moon-walking and warrior-posing.

My fingers trembled as I inserted the piece of sky in its proper place.

Simple Times was complete.  That that, Puzzle Thief.

I made the happy announcement to my own students at the start of class, and later, sent a box of chocolates to the math and science students and instructor who had completed the puzzles shy of the sky-piece.

Everything teaches everything.  Puzzles offer practical lessons in spatial relationships, cooperative group spirit, and and the pay-off of perseverance.

Sometimes you do get what you want.

I’m off to get a frame.