I felt the need to make something, not sure what, but out of wood. I was tired of words, words, words, teaching English 101 and all the grammar, topic sentences, definitions and spelling. If I was a beaver, I would say, I needed something to sink my teeth into. So, I went to the lumber yard near my home. Wove my way around stacks of stickered hardwood destined for cabinets and trim and skeletons for soft-skinned, overstuffed furniture, to the separate retail shop featuring exotic wood for handcrafted dreams.
The wood there was unique, the opposite of the barns full of squared-off and uniform stacks of lumber. There were three-inch thick slabs of pine, ‘live-edged’ bark still following the natural flow of the tree trunks from which they were sawn. Planks of ambrosia in varied widths and lengths with slashes of greenish eyes on a field of white. Tiger wood. Mahogany. Planks of aromatic cedar with knot holes and rambling edges. Bird’s eye maple. Every board different in width and length; all edges rough sawn and wavering. Beyond their visual appeal, they cried for control, for destiny: shape me into something beautiful, useful, more than I am. Like the first day of class with twenty-two students, staring at me… all right let’s see what you can do with me, for me.
But I really only wanted to see the figured poplar stock. That’s what I had come for. More traditional walnut and hickory and oak, while nice enough, stood in rigid rows waiting their turn to become the monotonous plains of dining room tables, over-dressed credenzas and roll-top desks. The wood I sought was garish, stunning as a black and white mustang in a herd of thoroughbred bays. I was drawn to the purple, black, green and orange flaming colors licking and dancing up and through the pure white boards framed by jagged, splintery boundaries. Students slumming from the local university looking for cheap, required credits were no challenge. It was the rest of the variegated bunch that got my attention: older returning students, chin-high housewives, hard-handed workers and high school drop-outs exploring college.
So, I carefully chose three dramatically figured boards, wedged them between the seats of my car and up against the dashboard. Up close and personal, I could smell the sap, reach out and feel the slightly rough surface as I rode along. I kept glancing at the board next to my face, eager to get home to assess it further, the others as well. But, there was really no rush. I would stand them up in my workshop to study the grain, to listen to the wood, be open to possibilities. Okay, yes, I needed lesson plans, exercises, lectures, a syllabus—some structure for my course. And there was a textbook to convey some left-brain concepts about writing. But, I never liked take-you-by-the-hand, blow-out diagrams in woodworking magazines showing exact dimensions for each part and how they went together. That eliminated all the fun, the creativity. It never hurt to get a direction, a notion for a new project. But that was all I wanted and needed. The rest depended on the wood, the grain and my imagination. I would sketch a rough outline. Cut the wood. Lay out the pieces, feel for the dimensions, the proportions and match the grain for continuity and contrast. I wanted students to write, to get in touch with their feelings and ideas ahead of grammar and spelling…that could come later in peer-group sessions and my red ink corrections. The idea was to juggle and align words so they spelled out thoughts for themselves and their classmates, to discover and enjoy another way to use language.
There was one student who had his own idea of class participation. He would stare at his laptop during my infrequent short lectures and group exercise instructions. It drove me nuts. I felt insulted, discounted. I called him out in class. He continued. I called him out in the hall. He continued. Finally, on the point of asking him to drop my class, he explained that the open screen allowed him to be slightly distracted which he needed because to stare me in the eyes and attend to a straight flow of information was too overwhelming. He needed to pick up the data with peripheral attention. He assured me that he was paying attention, just in his own way. I thought of the organic development of my projects and how it would drive a meticulous craftsman to distraction. And to be honest, sometimes I had to pick up the pieces of a flawed, seat-of-the-pants project, reassess and begin again with the leftover parts. Once I gave the student room to participate in his own way, and got out of my own way, I noticed how helpful he was in small group reviews.
So, working with wood and working with words have a lot in common, I’ve found. One major difference is that students don’t accumulate in my living room like my benches and pedestals and lamp stands. I do occasionally run into former students, as happened in the mall recently, and the guy announced to his buddies that I was his English teacher and that I taught him good. Thank god for semester turnover.