Friday, October 24, 2008


"this is a bandsaw," I said over the roar of the dust-collector. "It has a flexible blade that runs down into the bed here, and then around this wheel..."

The sophomores are learning about their first power tools in the woodshop at RISD. This is a sacred part of a yearly ritual, the training in of the uninitiated, the welcoming of a new crop of makers into our midst. Pretty exciting stuff. It fell to me to introduce them to the first power saw that they will learn to use. The teacher asked me to be in charge of this station, and I jumped at the chance. It has been months since I have been able to teach anything in a formal setting, and boy, do I miss it.

"This is a bandsaw." My students at NYU used to laugh at me because I introduced every new tool and process in the same way. One of them joked that when I die my tombstone will read "This is a tombstone. Are you working right now?" But I think naming things can be an important part of understanding them. Often students come to me with no making background, and have no frame of reference or vocabulary to describe their work or their surroundings. Part of my job is to contextualise these surroundings for them, to introduce them to the vocabulary, to empower them to avail themselves of the tools, to learn to be comfortable around them which makes them more comfortable makers.

"This is a bandsaw." I walked them through how to turn it on and off. We looked at the parts, and we did some test cuts. As the teacher, I kept my eyes on their hands, for the most part. The hands and the eyes. I like to know where they are looking, and what they are aware of. But I also want to make sure they are using their hands safely. So many of them are so trepidatious that they are not looking at the blade, or they are looking at the blade and it paralyses them. So I now have had the opportunity to closely examine thirty pairs of hands and thirty pairs of eyes. Lacquered nails and chewed nails and long nails and short ones. Dirty and clean. The smooth, tight skin of an eighteen year old hand is so interesting, especially when I look at mine, scarred, with callouses and mangled nails and think that mine used to look like that, and at one time I was just as scared to approach a big machine like that, myself. Green eyes and brown and hazel and blue, looking at the blade and trying to figure out how to integrate this new thing into their lives.

But they all did it. Every one. Even the ones who were so scared, or who apologised for messing up their test cut. Or who kept looking over at me to make sure they were not doing anything wrong. It made me proud. It is especially great to see the look on the face of a student who is particularly scared of the tool at first, but then finally, triumphantly, makes a test cut or two and realises, hey, yes, I can do this, it isn't really so scary after all!

"This is a bandsaw." It is the next step into a huge new way of thinking, one in which we can work, with hands and hearts and minds, to make a better world. We can, through the application of our labor and our intellect, have a positive impact. And if we pool our creative abilities, there is nothing we can not achieve. I firmly believe that is true.

And it is my job to be a part of this. Like a Johnny Appleseed of tool training, I get to plant this information, to water it a little and then let it take its own course. How many people will each of these nineteen year olds influence? What great things will they cause to happen? The few minutes I spend here in this loud, dusty shop can have unimaginable effects as the lessons learned here from me and others ripple out and out and out. Just like the wisdom and knowledge that my teachers imparted to me are rippling out and out. I see and hear my teachers from years ago, some still with us and others gone, encouraging me, showing me, instilling in me the confidence that I am trying to instill in these thirty sophomores.

I wrote a little while back about how important I thought it was for me to make some kind of difference. This is the difference I can make.

"This is a bandsaw."

1 comment:

emily said...

this is my favorite post of yours. i think it speaks to my teaching side, but i just really loved reading it. but really, i am leaving you a note to tell you how happy i am you are blogging again, and how much i will enjoy reading every post.