One of the most extraordinary memories of my 30 years of teaching came in the most simple way… a copper plaque. This copper plaque found its way into my heart and into my home in ways that I can hardly describe. This is the story:
I taught high school English and Reading for 3 decades. As it is for most teachers, I had my share of enthusiastic learners, and then… well, I had some learners who were more reluctant. I taught in a vocational-technical high school where students learned trades, and although the academic component was required for graduation, the trade was often considered first and foremost. Opening a book of literature and dissecting short stories, essays, plays and poems was not all that and a bag ‘o chips to some of my students. Every single school day for 30 years I heard someone say, “Why do I have to do this. I will never use this information ever. Ever.” (Well, sometimes the language was a bit stronger than that!) But anyway, I love literature and literacy and reading and writing… and I loved teaching it. I often told my students that they were better prepared than I was to meet the world head-on because they had both a trade and a strong academic background.
I had only one. Academics.
Until one year…
In the fall of 2002, I was assigned one period per day to monitor students in their actual trade/shop area. The objective was to blend academics with the trades. I ended up in Machine Shop. I was issued a navy blue shop jacket, giant protective eye goggles and a clip board. I was to follow students around the shop, asking them to explain to me things such as sequence in the completion of a project. I was to keep careful and detailed notes. It was certainly different for me… especially wearing the goggles. Talk about raucous laughter! But after the laughter (at me!), students showed me what they created in that Machine Shop… from key chains to intricate engineering devices. I was immediately in awe of seeing my students outside of my classroom of books and desks and chalkboard and composition paper.
And I’m pretty sure they felt the same way about me. No, actually I’m very sure.
Back in my classroom, I still taught all about short stories, essays, plays and poems, but the literature began to mean a bit more to them. One of the poems I taught that year was The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams. This poem was, and still is, one of my favorites because it speaks of the extraordinary of the ordinary. One of my assignments involved my students writing about what they “depend upon” in their shop areas. A hammer? A paint brush? A hair brush? A ladle? A stethoscope? A lathe? I told them to use the first 2 lines in the poem…
so much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
… to create their own poem of their own extraordinary.
But back to Machine Shop. In that shop was a wonderful engraving machine. Students learned to use it… and believe me, the process of creating something was very intricate. One day while monitoring my students’ progress, I heard some chatter and saw a group huddled over that engraving machine. What they were creating was a mystery… for but a moment. This is the mystery and the masterpiece:
A copper plaque. An extraordinary gift of words. It still leaves me speechless.
I took that copper plaque home and Barry attached it to our very, very, old and very, very special wheelbarrow… one we had acquired from the estate of a beloved cousin of Barry’s Mom. The years and the elements were not kind to that wheelbarrow, but we salvaged as much as we could of that wheelbarrow in parts. The most important part of that wheelbarrow still holds my copper plaque… and my heart… and hangs above our hearth.
so much depends
fixed to a red wheel
and my heart.
Please head on over to my 365 Days of Literacy for Kids and allow this poem to enter your heart and the hearts of your children. Enjoy the extraordinary of its simplicity. And, by the way… what do you depend upon? It’s a wonderful thing to ponder on the 1st day of a New Year!