That summer after my graduation but before I started teaching shop, I was the finest teacher since Socrates; I envisioned myself with 20 sets of rapt eyes hanging on my every word and my shop students deeply aware of the larger world, starving for knowledge that only I could impart.
Well, this delusion was not to be. My students were hungry, but not for much of what I could provide, and the only rapt attention I commanded was from my stumbles and pratfalls. By the end of the school year I was pretty hangdog.
I survived that first year, as most first-year teachers do, humbled by the challenge of teaching and bowed by the sheer weight of managing hordes of death-defying adolescents amid a shop full of deadly machine tools. One veteran teacher pulled me aside at the end of the school year and said, ?Wait ?til you get a crop of students who?ve been with you for four years — you?ll see your handiwork then.?
This simple sentence proved prophetic. I spent the summer drawing, thinking, reading and writing the many kinds of materials I?d need to teach the kids. This was before the microcomputer, of course, so all my plans were typed or drawn by hand and then duplicated by the clumsy school equipment. Central to the revised woodworking program was the idea of the circle of life, of how wood is more than mere material.
The next year, the freshmen planted five walnut trees after four nine-week quarters of drafting, small engine repair, elementary metalworking and hand woodworking. The sophomores learned to use machine tools and their hand woodworking skills to build tool chests for the tools they crafted. They built bowsaws, forged chisels and punches, and made their own hand planes.
Their big project was a fancy tool chest with a couple dovetailed drawers. The juniors learned framing by building a solar kiln. And the seniors, who?d worked the whole year building furniture of their own design, felled a huge black walnut tree and spent a week milling it into long planks.
Four years later I looked out on the graduating class and saw a bunch of kids with skills. They could fell a tree and mill it into boards. They knew how to dry the wood so that it was usable. They could frame a building, be it kiln or cabin. They could make cabinets; they could build furniture. What?s more, they had their own tools and a neat chest to carry them in.
They?d left a legacy, too. The next year, the sophomores would inherit a board for their tool chests that those seniors had milled. And, most significant, I think, those trees they?d planted as freshmen and carried water to during the last three years had survived and flourished.
Their long, leggy, leafy bows, just visible from the graduation stand at the football field, were blowing every which way in the wind just like the gawky, unpromising crop of freshmen who were acting up in the audience. The contrast, for me, was remarkable, and I think the seniors saw it too.
During the last four years, the students had learned just how much could be accomplished through their own perseverance and hard work. And I, too, had learned that knowledge is imparted in the same way, by lugging one heavy bucket of water to the tree at a time and waiting patiently for it to take root. PW
Andrew Schultz is a woodworking author in Lincoln, Nebraska.