Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Courage To Screw Things Up

(With over 1100 posts here on the blog, it's inevitable that there would be a few real stinkers which I gladly allow to remain buried in the archives, hoping that none of you read them, but left there as a sort of historical record of my evolution as a teacher. I go back periodically and read those old posts, often while cringing, but every now and then I come across one that reminds me to stay on course, or get back on course. This is one of those, originally published in July of 2010 under the title The Courage To Screw Things Up. I'm republishing it today as part of a irregular series of re-posts of pieces that I wish more people had read at the time they were first published. At the bottom of this post, you'll find links to the other re-posts in the series.)

A friend recently found herself a divorced woman, living alone in a large, older home with her daughter after some 30 years of marriage. One day she said to me, "I'm sick of calling R (her ex) every time something needs to be fixed around the house. He always took care of all of that stuff, we're divorced, and he's still doing it." For a moment I thought she was leading up to asking me to help her with a household project, but instead she said, "I need to learn to do these things for myself so I went out and bought a tool kit. I have screwdrivers, a hammer, pliers and a wrench. What else do I need?"

I almost started in on a list of what she was missing, which in my eyes was a long one, but thankfully I stopped myself. I've never gone out a "bought a tool kit," but rather accumulated my collection of tools over decades, some of which I've been using since I was in college. I've never been a tool collector like a lot of guys I know. Every tool I own came into my life because there was something I wanted to make or fix and I needed it to get the job done. Instead, I answered her, "When you run into something you can't do with those tools, call me and we'll figure out what you need."

In a post about making a tree part construction set I mentioned that I was reading Mark Frauenfelder's book Made By Hand, an accounting of his personal journey from an "hire an expert" to a "do-it-yourself" lifestyle. Part how-to, part coming of age, and very much a philosophical examination of how we modern humans spend our time on the planet, I'd recommend this book to anyone asking themselves, "What's missing?" even if you've never picked up a tool in your life.

As a cooperative school, we rely on parent-teachers to manage our various stations around the classroom. Almost every day since we introduced the "construction/tinkering" station to our daily mix, someone, usually a mom, has expressed discomfort with some aspect of working in that area. I think it's the word "construction" that gets them, and they're mostly concerned that their lack of experience in this traditionally masculine discipline will somehow lead to children injuring themselves, but they are also, I believe, giving voice to their fear of failure, which is what Frauenfelder identifies as the greatest impediment most of us face in taking on a DIY project. 

Early on in his journey, Frauenfelder is interviewing a man who goes by the name Mr. Jalopy, asking him about his legendary knack for "turning other people's trash into treasure."

"People think it's unusual, what I do. I don't even think of it as what I do. I'm just living. What I do is the same as cooking or gardening. The difference is the perception of the barrier to entry. People are afraid that they're going to screw something up, that they're going to ruin something. And unfortunately, it's valid -- they will. You will screw stuff up. Things will be broken. But that's the one step to overcome to get on the path of living this richer life of engagement, of having meaningful connections to the objects around you. It's that necessary step you have to take -- the courage to screw things up -- so you're able to fix things, or to make stuff from scratch, or to refurbish stuff to live according to your standards."

I'm so happy that so many of the parents of Woodland Park are having to summon up that courage alongside their children. What an incredible thing it is to have teachers who are learning right along with them, figuring things out, thinking things through, and screwing things up. In fact, the very idea of putting hammers, saws, drills and even some power tools into the hands of children as young as 2 takes a kind of tinkerers courage that requires a leap of faith about the capabilities of both yourself and your child.

One of the most rewarding moments I've ever had as a teacher was a message from Alex's mom Maya who told me that her daughter had asked to use the hammer at home. When she was finished she asked, "Can we keep the hammer outside just in case I need to use it again?"

I suspect she'll never need to go out a buy a tool kit.

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Anonymous said...

Interesting that you reposted this. I feel that is very valid for adults, not just kids. Having a baby makes allows me to see the world through her eyes and things that I thought I wouldnt be able to do at this age, I want to try. (learning to speak spanish for eg)

Kerry said...

That's a great book--and worth a lot of thought. My grandpa had an eighth-grade education, but he never let that from stopping him from building buildings, wiring them, plumbing (in what we later found was his own, distinctly inimitable style) inventing gizmos,making wine, beer, and root beer, developing photos, setting off home-made black-powder pipe bombs to celebrate July 4th--we all need a little DIY courage and willingness to fail, learn, and try again!

Tat @ Mum in search said...

We are so much more creative when we allow ourselves to make mistakes, but we often lose that courage when we grow older and then have to find it again when we need it. Great answer to your friend's question!