*below is the Prologue to my thesis “Resurrecting the Shop”, click to link to explore more details.
Discovering the Shop
I remember the first time I cut a piece of wood on a band saw. I was not much more than 8 years old. My great-grandfather had an old shop on a small piece of land at the head of the bay. From the rickety, old staircase that wound up the side of the building, the view is spectacular. How my great-grandfather managed to get the stationary power tools and lumber into the small upper level of the old shop is still a mystery to me. “The Shop”, as it is now known, is a small space with one window on the north end. There is ample head room down the middle of the room but the ceiling slopes away on both sides down to a height of little more than two feet. You are literally standing in an attic. The room is full of tools – a band saw, a radial arm saw, small power tools, a workbench and a number of hand tools. There was a pile of hardwood and softwood lying along one wall, an old hutch on the other, and piles of sawdust. The room smelled of a mixture of fresh cut wood and salty sea breezes (and a hint of smuggled rum). The room was always hot, heated by a homemade wood stove down on the main level. The old band saw was operated by a jury-rigged switch that not only turned the saw on, but also a 60 watt light bulb that hung from a wire above the work table. The saw would shake with a certain excitement when you flipped that switch, as the rest of the lights in “The Shop” dimmed to compensate for the power drain. I do not remember what I cut out that day, but I do remember the feeling the experience gave me, the sense of accomplishment, and the excitement to show and tell my parents all about it.
When my great-grandfather passed, my grandfather took over “The Shop” and it remained the same while under his careful watch. He added some new power tools and continued to produce some beautiful works of craftsmanship. Throughout high school, I would visit him there. I would help out a bit if I could or just watch him work. I had lost interest in woodworking and was more focused on hockey, friends and which university I was going to attend.
This experience from my youth has proved to be inherently valuable and has encouraged my wonder at the way we approach the use of the hands within our schools. As schools continue to raise academic standards and academic student achievement, we seem to have pushed the more practical and tactile disciplines to the margins of our school system. Is this an intended or unintended consequence? Who wins and who loses as a result?