I spent three days working with fifth graders. They’re full of incredible creativity and searching: wandering eyes, fiddling hands, impulsive chatter. At once they are engaged and distracted. They talk at and over each other answering questions not asked. So centered within themselves, many of them possess an energy that is genuine and untainted by the insecurity that accompanies adolescence and adulthood.
Jake and I sit on a 100-year-old rug made by Elise’s great grandmother. The young students come to us calm and curious, excited and ambitious. We teach all thirty of them to sew small pouches from scraps of wool blankets cut into rectangles. We sew up the sides and make a flap. Before we began, Jake, Elise and I worried our fifth graders might find it too frustrating to enjoy. Both groups proved us wrong, pushed through the initial frustration with knots, and kept threading their needles. It seemed enough for them to know that they were making something useful that they could take home. And a pouch has endless potential.
Once we provided tools and walked them through the basics, their minds and hands ran wild devising and creating all kinds of peculiar fastening systems: thread hinges and pulls and button holes.
Here at North House, I feel like a fifth grader again: so engaged and distracted, full of wonder and excitement about all that surrounds me.
I am reminded of when I was younger. My mom supplied our home with tools and art supplies and embraced my brother and me with her own creative spirit.
As little ones, we had time to create, experiment and explore without the pressure of making good grades or crafting a livelihood. We could ask questions about the world and how it works without feeling ignorant. We could try new things without a fear of failing.
At North House I feel cradled and coaxed in a similar way. This program says: Here are your tools, here are your mentors, here is your space and time to exercise your head, heart, and hands. In exchange you must be kind and welcoming to our community, observant, and useful.
I would say that is more than a fair deal.
I am smiling. Pure joy. During class we sit around stitching and knitting, steeping dyes from onion skins, marigolds, chamomile, and osage sawdust. The older women enlighten the younger ones on the wonders and woes of growing old. Bev tells us about ironing out her crooked stiff fingers in bed under her warm belly when she wakes up.
Stefania tells us about teaching her three granddaughters to spin and knit. I’m hit with a sharp and disappointed twinge remembering my grandfather back home. Slowly withering. I visited him before I came and learned that his grandmother taught him how to knit and crochet over the winters he spent with her. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said. His shame kept him from sharing his skill-- a lesson that could have tied me more closely to him, to my great grandmother, and to those before them.
I am getting an education by sitting back and listening.
The more I learn through the lens of craft, the more I understand things forgotten and repressed in me. I spent over half my life time stressing and studying, afraid to fail. What did 15 years of straight A’s add up to? A profound, hollow realization that I don’t know much.
Unless I learned it with my hands or heard it as a story, the grade school lesson is lost to me. The learning was rote.
While I was “learning to think” at the elite “Governor’s” highschool I was forgetting it all -- math, biology, chemistry, physics. I made the grades, but I struggled. I assumed these subjects did not suit me. My brain simply could not juggle numbers and facts. Now I ask myself: Why was I learning earth science while sitting in a classroom and not resting on a stone or molding clay in my fingers? Why wasn’t I learning fractions with a tape measure in my hand while building a workbench? Why weren’t we harvesting edible weeds, tending indigo vats, and fermenting our food to learn about the biological and chemical systems that feed life?
There is a sense of sadness that accompanies learning something new when it strikes you as something you wish would have known sooner.
Now, I am crafting my own education and building upon it with each new adventure.
I am grateful to feel like a fifth-grader again here at this folk school -- where learning to open up a machine and replace a blade is like unwrapping a gift, where instructors take us skiing and teach us to sheath our tools with woven birch bark, where sausage-making students won’t stop giving me homemade cookies at community chili feeds.