Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Big Picture

In 2006, I spent most of the year building my house (and 8 others) with my neighbors. It was an amazing and life changing experience on every level, and when it was over, I was so glad to be done. The hands-on, sweat equity nature of the project meant that for 10 months I was scrambling to find friends and family to come out to the job site every single weekend to help me. This was a community effort, and would have not been successful without the generous hours put in each week by those volunteers. At the time, I knew I was asking for a lot, and some weeks, it felt like it would never end. But it did, and yesterday, I was able to give back.

A few months ago a friend started construction on his home in the very same manner. The second project is located just 2 blocks from my home and weeks ago I told him I would come out and help. I was nostalgic as I dug my work boots and tool belt from the attic. As I filled my coffee thermos and packed my lunch, I recalled the seemingly endless days that I spent pounding nails and raising walls just 2 years earlier. As hard as it was, it had all been worth it. I now have my very own affordable house to show for it.

It only took about an hour for me to get back in the groove. We were siding, which I love, and as soon as the three of us figured out a system that worked, we rocked. They took measurements and called them out to me at the cutting station. I measured out and made cuts (with a handy new power tool that I fell in love with) and passed off the concrete siding pieces. Every once on a while I nailed a few up with the nail gun, just for old times' sake....god, I love that nail gun. It was really fun.

As we worked, it was so interesting to be on the other side of the crew, so to speak. I wasn't the homeowner. I was just the labor. It became important for me to defer to my friend as the crew leader. This was fine by me, actually. It felt way more relaxed and my detachment from the finished product was refreshing. What I found fascinating, and very familiar, however, was my friend's inability, as as first time home builder, to see the big picture.

As a novice, on the job site, each new task holds an enormous learning curve. The project manager instructs you on the proper method of hanging siding, for instance. He explains how the cuts should be made, where the seams should join, how far the spacing should be and how close the boards should be to the trim. As the novice works, mistakes are made and repaired. Care is taken to follow the instructions of the supervisor and progress is made. When I joined the crew yesterday, they had begun only the previous day. They were still "green" and extremely careful in following the guidelines to a T.

As we worked, my friend and his partner noticed a few gaps at the end of a few boards. They discussed ripping the boards out and starting again. I looked closely at the gaps and reassured them that they would be fine. "Once those ends get caulked, no one will be bale to see the gap. I'm sure it will be fine." They looked at me doubtfully. "We were told that the gaps could be no larger than a 1/4". I think we should start again," my friend was insistent.

All of a sudden it dawned on me. I had the benefit of being able to see the big picture. My house was done. After siding 9 homes for months on end that summer two years ago, I had obsessed about that same 1/4" gap ad naseum. But what I knew months later, after completing the final caulking and painting, was that a hair over or under 1/4" made no difference at all. Once the finish work was done, minor flaws and gaps disappeared. It just didn't matter.

I didn't push it with my friend, however. He still wanted to rip out a few boards and perfect his work, and after explaining what I understood to be true, I backed off. It's important for him to learn in his own way. I did the same thing. I needed to feel like I was doing it right. That I was learning something new and doing it well. But as we continued, I thought a lot about putting new learning into perspective.

My old frame of reference for learning came from my years as a student and eventually as an elementary school teacher. So often, in the teacher/student model, what is missing, at least for the student is the benefit of the big picture. Learning happens in bits and chunks, designed to fit within the confines of a school day or the convenience of a calendar year so that benchmarks may be reached and standards fulfilled. A geometry lesson here, a science experiment there. But what's missing in this educational system is the relevence. Why does it matter that the area of a triangle is 1/2 x b x h ? No wonder so many of us don't remember what we learned in 9th grade math. We didn't have the big picture.

Unfortunately, school doesn't often allow for the big picture. Learning needs to happen on a schedule, at certain specific times, under very specific circumstances. I feel greatful to have found another way for myself and for my children. Unschooling allows us to take in the learning life has to offer every step of the way.

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