When I was twelve years old, I, along with all the other boys in seventh grade took wood shop. I’d grown up in an extended family of builders, plasterer/masons, plumbers, electricians, and other tradesmen, but I was never much interested in working with my hands. I preferred books to hammers, numbers to plaster, and history and geography to pipes and wires. In short, I was a great disappointment to many of my close relations.
So it was that I walked into “shop” that first day with little knowledge of what was involved in turning slices of trees into useful things, but I was confident I could learn to do anything. After all, my father and uncles and older cousins all worked with their hands and I was way smarter than they were. It wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties that they all seemed to learn an awful lot very quickly, but that’s a story for another day.
As I said, my confidence knew no bounds, and I approached the building of our first project, a book stand, as I did other subjects. I listened to the instructions, watched closely as the teacher demonstrated the proper use of saws, planes, hammers, chisels, rasps, hand drills, sandpaper, and screwdrivers, and was sure I’d end up with an exceptional book stand.
It was during one of the early classes that I learned I could think about it for a while and then see, in my head, how each piece of wood had to be shaped so all would fit together. Granted, it was only four pieces that first time, but it was a talent that would serve me well a decade and a half later when I, newly married, discovered that carpenters and plumbers and electricians were expensive and if I wanted something fixed I’d have to figure out how to do it myself or not eat for a month. It served me even better years later when I started a home business building custom tables and cabinets. And it served me again when I discovered computers and programming and websites. For it’s all the same, in a way. Different things have to be shaped, or coded, or designed so they all fit together just right.
It was also during one of the early classes I learned an even more valuable lesson – imagining is not the same as doing. I’ll not torture you with a detailed description of everything I had to do to make that book stand. I will say I nailed the bevels on the rails but the corners on the ends ended up with a much longer curve than they were supposed to have and didn’t exactly, precisely match. By the day of final inspection and grading, I was more than pleased with my B-.
What made me remember all this was an article in the local newspaper about how woodworking classes are making a comeback. Both public and private schools are rediscovering the benefits of having kids – boys and girls – work with their hands. Not only do kids learn they can actually make something, they learn, for example, that the math they took isn’t just dry numbers but a tool that helps them figure out how to create useful and beautiful things. They might get interested in trees or why one wood is different from another. Or the history behind the Shaker table might inspire them to do a little research.
Want to boost a kid’s self esteem? Put her in front of a lathe and let her turn a chunk of wood into a rosewood pen or a maple bowl. Self-esteem is another word for pride, and just as I was proud of the book stand I made, more and more kids are learning the real meaning of pride and accumulating true self-esteem the only way possible – by trying and doing, then trying again and doing better.
I still have that book stand. It’s followed me around for 47 years. Like me, it’s older, it’s been worn and stained by time, and life, but I’m as proud of that thing today as I was then. Because it taught me that I was correct that first day of wood shop. I can learn to do anything if I put my mind to it and am willing to spend the time studying and/or practicing and perfecting.
Wouldn’t it be great if a simple thing like a pen, or a table, or a box, or a book stand could teach every kid that same lesson?
They can. We just have to let them.