Commentary 26 Aug 2010 09:13 pm
I bought a “some-assembly-required” bookshelf last week for my classroom. It was only $15, and I certainly received my money’s worth in frustration and inspiration.
In post-literate America, written directions are as passé as poodle skirts, so the bookshelf came with a half-dozen pictograms, showing the various pressboard pieces and hardware that, if assembled with some modicum of skill, would result in a piece of furniture capable of holding the collected works of Shakespeare, a CD player and perhaps a bottle of Jack Daniel’s hidden inside a hollowed-out dictionary.
I’m sure there’s an old saying somewhere about making sure you have the right tools for the job — in this case, a claw hammer and a Phillips screwdriver — but since both of those were at home and I was at school, I forged ahead with a tiny geologist hammer and needle-nosed pliers borrowed from the librarian. (Librarians have everything.)
Once I had unpacked all the pieces and parts and spread them across the desk tops that today serve as pillows for my slumbering students, I began to decipher the various hieroglyphics in the directions. As a licensed driver, I have lots of experience with this, because English disappeared from automobile dashboards 15 years ago, replaced with wavy blue lines for air conditioning, wavy red lines for heat and something that looks like a nuclear explosion for a flat tire.
These bookshelf directions were cut from the same cloth, with lots of arrows swooping across drawings of an idealized bookshelf that barely resembled the piece I was stitching together like a demented scientist in my murky lair.
The first thing I discovered is that a geologist hammer may be perfect for rock hounding, but it is utterly inadequate for pounding fasteners into predrilled holes. For that you need a real man’s hammer, or lacking that, a heavy literature book. However, what you gain in weight with a good anthology, you lose in precision, meaning my fingers were receiving a good thumping for every fastener I attached.
Whenever I assemble something, I immediately compromise my already-shaky commitment to quality. With the bookshelf, this began when an essential “compression dowel” (words were used in the directions only to give cryptic part names) snapped in half, leaving one end lodged firmly in the panel. Attempts to extract the piece with the needle nose pliers only demonstrated the depths to which quality compression dowel manufacturing has sunk since the golden age of the craft in the late 1920s: It twisted into shrapnel, with one piece still lodged inside the panel.
Like any good structural engineer, I shrugged my shoulders and hoped the stunted remains would be tough enough to support the 170 pounds the bookshelf was designed to hold.
Ultimately, a bookshelf did indeed rise from the rough-and-tumble, helter-skelter amalgamation of wood and metal around the room. The pièce de resistance was the nailing of the back panel, a flimsy thing about the consistency of 20 wet Kleenex tissues.
I quickly completed this final step, only to realize that I had used 16 nails to attach the back panel … to the front of the bookshelf. Removing those 16 nails effectively destroyed the shelf’s finish, tearing the panel in the process and bending about half the nails.
At this point, I was almost ready to drop another $15 and start from scratch, but then the Muse of Education — a cigar-smoking cherub with facial stubble and a dunce cap — granted me a vision:
As babies, most of us come out of the box perfectly, but with no clear instructions. The people responsible for putting us together do the best they can with the tools they have at hand. Most of the time, the results are functional final products, but not without a few wrong turns of the screw or crookedly pounded nails. We don’t call the broken pieces defects; we call them “character.”
My new bookshelf has a lot of character, too much to relegate to the scrap heap. I’m keeping it next to my desk, both for its functional purpose as a holder of books and as an unexpected metaphor for the process of education.
Teachers, may all your bookshelves be functional, and may they all reveal the one thing that no test can measure — character.