Saturday, October 18, 2008

Wonder and discovery

So I took a couple of days to drive up the coast and visit an old colleague and then venture further on to help out some friends at a thing called Totally Trades.

The colleague and friend was Sharon, and we used to work at competing newspapers many years ago (dear god - was it 15 years really? Urk - yes it was!) in Pittsfield. She's preparing to retire to Machias if the work details can ever get figured out, and she has a little house there where she retreats on vacation. She visits her daughter and new grand-baby and paints and creates beautiful things in her studio. I was very impressed with her talent - I had only known of her work as a writer, and journalism is pretty cut-and-dried. There is not a lot of creativity involved in most stories. But her artwork was stunning. Brilliant colors, bold lines, delicate squiggles. Any effort I have ever made to produce such things always look like something a third-grader made, so I am duly impressed. We had a good visit, I got to hold the grandbaby a little bit, and I crept out in the morning dark to head to Calais for the tradeswomen's thing.

Totally Trades is a one-day conference for girls in junior high and high school to expose them to possible careers that they might not otherwise consider. Local agencies and training schools and such participate, and tradeswomen with all kinds of skills come and talk about what it is they do and help the girls do some hands-on stuff just to try for fun.

I helped out with the Women Unlimited group, which offered a couple of sessions in which the girls got to build (and take home) wooden tool boxes. The pieces are all pre-cut and bundled so that the girls can build them within the hour or so class time allotted. There is a lot of measuring and marking, followed by drilling of pilot holes and eventually, assembling the pieces into a tool box that is neat and clean in its simplicity, utterly useful, and it looks like lots of tool boxes that kids have seen. My job was mostly to make sure they were measuring eighths of an inch and not sixteenths and that they had the edge of the wood lined up with the zero on the ruler and not the end of the ruler. And I served as materials vice, holding down the ends of things so they could use both hands on the drill.

I am not one to get all touchy-feely and misted up over much, but I have to say, it was nearly magical to watch these girls go, in the course of an hour, from being afraid of measuring eighths and terrified of a cordless drill to feeling confident enough to gently countersink the screws to make a smooth surface. They learned how to change out the bit from a drill bit to a screw bit and how to drill holes and put in the screws. Several of them quickly picked up how to tell by feel when the boards were where they were supposed to be and they got fussy about making sure it was right. There was no "close enough" for these kids - they wanted the tool box to be perfect. They took pride in what they were doing.

In the second session, there were an odd number of girls, so one of the teachers from their school was drafted to participate (things work better in partners). As we laid out the pieces and got ready to begin, she said nervously to me "I've never built anything in my life."

She'd never held a cordless drill, never mind used one to drill holes in a board.

Not only was she a marvelous example for her young partner, showing that adults could learn things too, and could be willing to admit that they did not know a thing, but her emotions were plain on her face as she went from terrified to cautiously confident with the power tools. She and her young charge learned a new skill together. The kid actually learned a little faster than the adult, and both were pretty impressed at the end.

I was humbled and awed by it all.

So often I teach myself things on the job. In fact, I expect to learn things on each job I do. Sometimes I learn about hardwood floors, sometimes I learn about drip edge and flashing, sometimes I learn about window sills or copper pipes. I never think much of it, I suppose, because I have (perhaps misplaced) faith in my problem-solving skills. I know that I can learn things, and I know that if I can figure a thing out, I can master it. I don't remember not feeling this way, but I suppose I must have at some point. I don't know, though. I remember when my father was building our house, how he rolled out the plans and stood over them until he figured how what they meant. He then set about figuring out how to build from wood what was drawn on the page and how to put it all together so it would keep his family warm and dry that winter. Of all the unhealthy things that man modeled for me in my childhood, this is perhaps the one healthy, positive thing he showed me. Don't be afraid to learn new things and don't be afraid to work hard doing it. So anyway, I have confidence - sometimes when I have no business having confidence - but I've got it.

But these girls hadn't got it yet when we met yesterday. Many of them were farm girls, and knew lots of things, like how to drive a tractor and crazy stuff like that, but they lacked faith in their own abilities. They didn't really comprehend or value their own skills and talents. In the course of an hour, they seemed to gain momentum; they seemed to gain confidence, both in their skills and in their ability to learn new ones.

I also have a new respect for the women who teach the toolbox class. I was merely a volunteer who happened to have an interesting profession. These women are amazing. One has an MBA. She does the financial stuff at Women Unlimited. Another does office-type things that are beyond my comprehension. Neither is a tradeswoman, but both are confident in their ability to handle these tools and to teach these skills in a way that a professional tradeswoman cannot. They can relate to the young women so much better than I. They don't build things for a living, but they are capable in this regard, and that shines through and the girls see it. It is real. It cannot be faked. And it was an ingenious idea for whomever came up with it. Get the non-tradeswomen to teach this class.

Because often tradeswomen forget what it is to be scared of the drill. We forget what it is to struggle to add fractions. We forget that people have to be told to hold the drill straight up and down and to keep it running when you pull the bit back out. That stuff's automatic for us, but foreign and scary to a novice.

At the end of the class, each student wrote her name inside the tool box she made. I overheard a conversation of plans for the girls to sign each other's tool boxes to serve as mementos of the day. It made me smile.

I hear there is another Totally Trades day in Bangor next month. We'll see what my schedule looks like, but I'd love to volunteer at that one as well. I have a new appreciation of what the Women Unlimited staff do and of the courage of these young girls to step up and learn something that the whole world so often tells them is none of their business. I need to be reminded of those kinds of everyday acts of bravery.

1 comment:

Robin said...

What an amazing sounding program, and one I could have really used. Heck, one I could still really use today. It must have been incredible to be a part of, and the baby-snuggling on the way there is the cherry on top.