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Who wants to lose?

Christie the beagle

It takes between 8 and 10 years to become a full-fledged remodeling/renovation carpenter. This is as long as most doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs take to earn their stripes. The program is an on-the-job, hands-on curriculum. Every project requires a basic set of skills, yet the professional carpenter continues to learn throughout his career as all professionals do.

The role of the master

The trade requires not only the demanding skill base of woodworking but also the intimate knowledge of all the associated trades that go into fine homebuilding.

The lead carpenter on projects is often the site manager, scheduler, client liaison and layout lead. It is not unusual for him/her to be the answer person for all the questions that arise during the duration of the job. Large renovation projects are difficult to blueprint accurately; couple this with the fact that design and budgets change like the weather, requiring carpenters to be flexible and highly creative. A unique combination of skills.

Along the way many perfectly capable tradesmen decide they don’t want the hassle of this environment. Who wants to backtrack on a job to tear down completed work so a wall can be moved a foot to the left or right? These mechanics become tile setters, or sheet rockers, or roofers, doing the same work everyday, often on a piecework basis where the more they accomplish, the more they get paid. Pavlov’s response in action.

Often the young, talented carpenters go into business for themselves. They think being a contractor is easy since they are usually managing the projects anyway. Why not be independent? Over time they learn that the contracting end – preparing the bids, maintaining relationships with architects, decorators, and homeowners – is a wild circus requiring a whole different set of skills.

I always considered myself a teacher and guide to the young people who came to my employ through the connection of friends, fellow tradesmen, trade schools, or local ads. These fellows were generally not the SAT Einsteins headed to Harvard, Rensselaer, or Skidmore. These were often the kids who did not fit into that mold and found themselves going into the trades to make a living.

The intelligence of the body-mind

A young man came to me via a Help Wanted ad. Paul arrived for the job site interview in a worn out Pontiac sedan, dressed eighties style – big collar, handsome and hip, a small diamond stud in his earlobe. Not exactly what I was looking for – but after talking to him for a while, I gleaned some of his particulars. Impressive.

Paul was a graduate of a solid, local technical school. His mentor was well-known in Fairfield County. Paul had also worked for his uncle, a remodeling contractor, since his early teens, and had experience doing almost everything from framing to trim work to hanging sheet rock, roofing, and tiling. By the time we met, he had at least 7 years experience. He badly wanted to get out from under his uncle’s control, earn more money, and get on with his life. I gave him a try and was not disappointed. His only weakness was in the design sophistication of his work; but like all talented carpenters, he was a quick study. We moved on to do great work together for several years.

A funny moment taught me something very interesting about native intelligence. One afternoon while making a visit to Paul’s apartment on River Road, I walked in unannounced, finding him sitting on a living room chair holding a newspaper opened on his lap. Doing a classic double take in the moment, I realized that the paper was upside down. My sense in the moment was that he was pretending to read for my benefit … self-conscious about how I might feel about him if I saw that he lacked readings skills and comprehension.

This talented young man went to public school in an era that sorted children into two classes: college bound or trade bound. This was a time where junior high schools had auto shops and woodworking classes. When I was in junior high, typesetting and lathe classes were mandatory. Far different from today’s world. Paul was a brilliant young carpenter as well as a natural leader. Somehow he side-stepped his reading difficulties and discovered his own way to express his intelligence through his powerful, creative hands. For the best, I am sure. He owns his own construction company today.

Boys will be boys

Alex came to me from a very different place. While working on a deck footing layout, I was asked to meet a prospective laborer, the son of the girlfriend / of the divorced father / of the carpenter / I was on site with. The gears of destiny work in mysterious ways.

Apparently Alex was always in trouble of some sort. Mostly the “boys will be boys” sort. His mother’s boyfriend brought him to the job by the collar saying, “Put him to work … It doesn’t matter what you pay him. I’ll be back at 5:00 to pick him up.”

I learned early in my construction teaching career that if a prospective employee had an aversion to dirt and brooms (the boot camp of our industry) they would never get the joy out of hard work. Well, we had footings to dig … and Alex’s pent-up rebellious anger had a place to ground itself!

Over the next few years I watched Alex become an awesome laborer and eventually a very good project manager. In that time he also got hitched and started a family.

Our bodies are built for laboring in the soil. Our deep agrarian roots insure this. A genetic switch is hit to the “on” position when the smell of soil and the machine operator’s graceful action breaks the earth in the building of a house. Humans are builders. It’s in the DNA.

Culling the herd for stage crew

Early on during my tenure as designer/builder of stage sets for our middle and high school productions, I watched in dismay as the district administration ripped out the beautiful wood shop at the middle school. It was replaced with a computer lab for CAD, etc. This was before every child had his/her own cell phone and PC. The visionaries at the Board of Ed saw the future coming … it would be a time of electronic emancipation from hard labor, at least for the prominently upscale progeny of our community.

At the same, I was giving hands-on instruction to the small group of girls and boys who chose the “other” box – the stage crew. Each year, at the onset of the middle school musical (a production that incorporated one hundred students plus community volunteers like myself), I would be handed one or two children from the “troubled” category to put to work.

Kids love tools! I would start the younger ones with measuring and organization, clean up, and fastening. They love to put things together with their hands. Often the reason a child has problems (apart from the suspicious brain chemistry diagnosis of ADD) is that school bores them. The rebels of society do not want to be controlled. Adding pressure, failure and punishment models only increases the desire to bust out of the narrow model of college prep. I remember one young boy, whose mother came to pick him up after set building. Employing some version of military management, she actually pulled him by his ear, saying nothing but “get moving.” This boy was a born tool user whose father was a fine builder. This boy helped me for 2 years at the middle school and then got a promotion at the high school. I remember when he came  to me at a basketball game saying proudly, “Mr. Borrell, I’m Stage Crew Head this year!”

Virtual jungle rot

The current generation feels detached from the process of living. I believe it stems from an over-saturation of the electronic and technical world. The virtual action of computer gaming contributes to this alienation. Lots of time spent, little accomplished.

Certainly computer software is a tool in a real sense. I couldn’t have this beautiful website sending out my messages on the Internet without them. But our children get up at 6:00 am five days a week and often don’t go “offline” until late in the evening, if at all. I read somewhere that the amount of cell phone calls of an average high schooler per day is between 80 and 100! You do the math.

It is obvious how I feel about all of this. Balance is always the answer to extreme behavior patterns. In the game of life, as in the sports our children play, there are winners and losers. This is a tough road for the kids and their parents. Too much pressure creates excessive failures percentages … and who wants to lose?