I like order. While I am no perfectionist, and I recognize that we live in a chaotic universe, I feel more at peace when t-shirts are folded and put away neatly and tasks are on lists.
Where there is no order, I enjoy imposing it. I see a mess, and my imagination starts selecting, categorizing, and straightening. When I am in a colleague’s unruly office, I must resist the temptation to say, “I could help you with this.” (What a time suck that would be.)
I like the revision part of writing as much as I like the generation part. The mental activity is not unlike cleaning out a closet. Creativity is not all right brain. Could anything ever get made without the desire to bring coherence to a wash of ideas, experience, sensations, stuff? The left brain brings shape to raw material and finds what my friend Jan calls the spine of a piece.
I often think about one creative activity when doing another: writing when gardening, for example. Recently, I organized the laundry corner of the basement, quickly made a rudimentary table, and thought about teaching while doing both. And I didn’t just think about teaching while my hands were busy; I thought about my wonderful junior high shop teacher, Richard Bayrouty, who died in December, and the benefits of real hands-on learning.
In 1977, when I entered 7th grade, there was a policy shift in my hometown’s school system that girls could take industrial arts, or “shop,” as an elective. If I remember correctly, before 1977 all girls took home economics (cooking, sewing, laundry) and all boys took shop. That year, the policy loosened, and suddenly there was cross-registration. Boys who wanted to make and eat cookies took “home ec” with Ms. T. Girls who knew how to sew, cook, wash, and iron, as I did, took shop. My friend Lynn-Marie, who recently wrote to me that she never “caught on to home ec” and “never really liked to cook,” and I were the only two girls that year in Mr. Bayrouty’s class.
He had the best classroom. Indeed, in the era before computing, it was the only classroom, besides the art room with its brushes or the music room with its piano, that had special tools or technology. And the shop room smelled differently and good: sawdust, machine oil, metal, and varnish. There were benches but no desks. I don’t think we ever sat down in class. We drafted, drilled, filed, and sanded standing up. This class was as much about our bodies as gym was.
Mr. Bayrouty was funny and he was tough. My 4 siblings and I are pretty close in age, and it was a small town and all the teachers knew all the families. Whenever I walked in to the shop, Mr. Bayrouty (also a musician) would sing, “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” My sister Emily, who took shop 7 years after me, reports that he sang the same to her. My friend Lynn-Marie writes that, to her, he always said, “Trying to get a smile out of you is like trying to get blood out of a stone.” Lynn-Marie also writes that she “loved that class.” (Fellow teachers, this is a good reminder: even the student who scowls at you may love you and your class and be learning.) He would tease the boys — especially the funny ones like Taze, Bobby, and Andy — even harder. He scolded us, too, and hovered over us out of care, not distrust. My two sisters and I all recall vividly how he believed in all his students. Emily says that “he had complete confidence when you used the TABLE SAW!!!” and Sally, even today, harbors a desire to buy a table saw for home improvement projects, believing “it would all come back to me about how to use it because of Mr. Bayrouty.”
Dear sisters and friend, it does all come back when you smell the sawdust and touch the wood. (And brothers, Michael and Brian, do you have anything to say about shop?) I don’t have a table saw, but every time I make something that requires my powered hand tools I think of Mr. Bayrouty and shop class. From him we learned important lessons that trained our hands — and perhaps habits too — in important ways. As I made my rudimentary $8 table for my laundry area, I recalled a few of them.
♦ Draw the plan first. Before we learned much about tools and materials in Mr. Bayrouty’s class, we had to learn drafting. First on graph paper and later plain paper, we drew objects to scale and also from various perspectives. There were conventions for labeling the drawings and identifying our names, but those particulars are blurred in memory. However, the overall lesson stayed: In my life, for anything I’ve ever made from scratch — be it a bookshelf or a garden plot — I’ve always measured the space, drawn the thing and its dimensions on paper, and then made a list of components needed. Some people may have a 3D brain; I do not. I can’t “see” it until it’s on paper.
♦ Use power tools and be safe. Sometimes, when my children reach certain ages, it causes me to think back on myself at the same age. When Eli was about 13, I remembered myself at 13 or 14, using my father’s power tools in our basement to build shelves and even a homegrown closet organizer system. Even though I never injured myself, I looked back on this time as ripe with the potential for injury, and I pictured my bloody, severed hand on the cement floor, shreds of flesh and bone in a saw blade, and my good hand putting tourniquet-like pressure on my wrist stump. “Dad!” I demanded, the next time I saw him. “How could you let me use your tools unsupervised when I was only 13?! I could have hurt myself!!” He looked at me, curiously. “But you didn’t.” I continued to badger him: “But how could you let me? I was only a kid.” Refusing to rise to the bait, he answered,”I knew that you knew how to use them.”
And, indeed, I did know how to use power tools, and when I took them out recently to make my table, I set up my work area for safety. Although I think my father taught us to paint (houses, not portraits) and hammer, it was Mr. Bayrouty who trained us on power tools — table saw, jig, router, and drill press. Safety was a huge part of the instruction, and I sort of recall him calling kids “birdbrain” and rapping them on the bicep if they were fooling around when they were supposed to be serious. Sally reminds me that Mr. Bayrouty cut his own thumb off in the shop a few years after we had him. (It was reattached; he did return to teaching and music-making.) Teacher, teach thyself!
♦ Finish the edges of your work. My laundry table — made out of scrap plywood, 4 cedar balusters, and drywall screws — is only functional. A laundry basket goes on top of it and another one can slide underneath. It’s likely that no one will ever touch it. After I finished screwing the legs to the tabletop and attaching tack glides to their bottoms, however, a little voice inside me whispered: Finish the edges. I knew I should plane them and file them, Mr. Bayrouty, but I went straight to the medium grade sandpaper and then the fine and made them smooth enough. Wanting the table to be at least a bit ‘furniture-y’, I impulsively covered the edges with some tie-dyed pattern duct tape I had bought for Grace to make duct tape wallets. It may not be finished in the way I was taught to finish the edges, but it is complete and splinters-free.
There are so many other lessons that Mr. Bayrouty taught us, and I probably follow them consistently yet without being conscious of their source: countersink screw heads, wrap the sandpaper around a small block, plane and sand in the direction of the grain, use the proper grade wood for the job, sweep the floor of sawdust so no one slips in the shop.
Not many of his students became house builders or furniture makers. Still, we learned a set of practices that have real use in life, and I believe too that the habits our hands learned may have made patterns in our brains that transferred to other kinds of tasks. (This is a hunch.) When I look at a student’s draft report, for example, I see, as if hovering above the chaos, a sketch of a better structure. When I finish something I am writing, I have one last, long go at it, to smooth errant splinters and attain a feeling of finished-ness. Maybe that’s just me; maybe that I got from writing assignments; or maybe the lessons of industrial arts are essential and seep into other domains.
There are so many ways my $8 table does not live up to the woodworking standards that Mr. Bayrouty taught us. For example, I didn’t stain and varnish it or use the proper fasteners. And yet I do feel sure that the way I approached the project is consistent with other useful lessons I learned — about planning, respect for tools, and proficiency — from an industrial artist.