Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Necessary Work

Our old shipping pallets were looking a little shabby. They weren't yet hazardous, but a few of the boards were cracked and I judged that it wouldn't be long before rusty nails would be exposed. A parent had access to some fairly new, solid, clean heat treated pallets and delivered them over the weekend. This meant was time to get rid of the old ones.

They were too bulky to fit into the dumpster, so they would need to be dismantled, a project I had neither the time or inclination to undertake. From my time as the communications manager at the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, I learned from the great consultant "Honkin'" Bill Oncken that this is called a "monkey," it was on my back, and the first priority of a good manager is to try to get it off your back by delegating it to someone else. Now you would think, being a cooperative with lots of parent-teachers around the place that my first thought would be to find an adult to do the work, but when it comes to getting necessary projects done around the school I've trained myself to first think, "Can the kids do it?"

I thought, with adult support, that the kids in the 4-5's class might be up to it, so I dragged one of them down to the workbench, got out our box of hammers and got to work. The first thing I realized was that the pallet was in much better shape than I thought and it wasn't going to be easy to pry all those boards apart, but by then there were already a half dozen kids going at it.

A couple of them spent some time figuring out how the thing was put together, realizing that the claw-end of their tools were going to be their best friends, but most of the kids just got busy sort of randomly hammering the wood. I turned my attention to supporting the claw-end workers. There were a few loose spots where we could get under the wood for prying, but mostly we found that the wood was too tightly nailed together. After some effort, I managed to work my tool into a few spots, and with great effort, got something going, which I then turned over to the kids who primarily used their many hands to complete the job.

Right away, we noticed the long, sharp rusty nails that came out with the boards we removed. We decided that we should be careful and that it sure was "lucky" that the little kids weren't around to get hurt on them.

We struggled like this for a time, then in frustration, I decided to try using one hammer to pound the claw-end of a second hammer under a tight joint. It worked, leaving us with a hammer handle lever upon which the kids could now more effectively apply their brute force. By now we were down to a core group of four workers. They all wanted me to hammer their hammers into tight joints and working both independently and together we managed to use this technique to pry off most of the boards on one side, leaving the boards on the other side exposed.

As we worked, the kids, many of whom had started off tentatively and without clear purpose, had now become more assertive and purposeful with their tools, using them in an increasingly meaningful way.

The prying mostly done, we now returned to hammering away at the bottom boards. As each board came off, a kid would carefully walk it away from where we worked, making sure to not hit anyone, keeping a close eye on those exposed, rusty nails, and deposited it in the trash can. Occasionally, a friend would approach the workbench, often with a toy in hand or some other invitation to play, but the workers warned them off, echoing the words I've often used to create a climate of caution and respect around the workbench: "We're working here," "There are hammers and rusty nails here," "No toys at the workbench." To which I added, "If you want to help, there are hammers and eye protection right over there."

Just as the two-year-olds had worked together to do the necessary work of putting chairs around the art table last week, these older kids worked together to do the necessary work of dismantling the old pallet. This is what it means to be part of a community, voluntarily pitching in, working hard, thinking about the little kids and the hazards, discussing, debating, struggling, and figuring things out. This is how we make a community our community.

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