Last week I was honored to be a guest at a chair building class at the Chidwick School of Fine Woodworking in Stevensville, Montana. Most classes at Chidwick’s are comprised of guys in their fifties whose lives are pretty well set.
The students at this class are at the other end of the spectrum; kids from a low-income school in an urban area. This class was comprised of the top five students (out of 500) in the woodworking program at North Salem High School in Salem, Oregon. Along with Dean Mattson, the program instructor were his assistant and one of the program’s volunteers.
So what happens when you take a group of young people from an ugly and often hopeless environment and transport them to one of the most beautiful places on the planet? Kids like this are often described as “falling through the cracks”, but that is a ridiculous understatement. When two out of three students at an urban school live below the poverty line and one out of four don’t have a permanent home, they haven’t “fallen through the cracks”, they are over the edge of a cliff with little hope of ever climbing out.
For the past five years, Dean Mattson has faced hundreds of these young people every day and has built the best (and largest) public school woodworking program in the country. Mattson isn’t an educator, he’s an experienced businessman who applies the common-sense principles of a good business to his program. The results are nothing short of incredible.
The students are treated like employees; if they don’t do what is expected of them in the classroom, they can and will be fired. The students are also treated as customers, and the product they are offered is the opportunity for a good job upon graduation. Results are measured by job offers, not standardized test scores. There are more students who want to be in this program than available spaces.
Mattson’s students are also a valuable product. One of the major issues in the woodworking industry is a lack of employees capable of functioning in a fast-moving industry where the use of technology is growing rapidly. The professional woodworker of today needs to be up to date technically as well as a good team player. North Salem graduates are in high demand because they are taught values and personal integrity as well as technical skills. There are more job offers available then there are graduates to fill them.
One of the key elements to this success are men like Andy Chidwick. Andy is a long-time friend of Mattson’s and an accomplished furniture maker. The transformation that takes place in these students makes it hard to not help them out. This was the third year that Andy took a week from his regular schedule and gave his time and the use of his shop to show these young people a different side of both the woodworking world and the real world.
In their school projects, the work is production oriented. The goal is to equip them to go to work and earn a living. But there is an artistic and refined area in woodworking that needs an artist’s eye and a delicate touch. The week began with Chidwick leading the students to open their eyes to different ways of looking at their environment and different ways of combining shapes and materials.
When the students were selecting wood for their seats Monday morning, one of them asked me about his plan for arranging the grain pattern in quartersawn white oak to make the most of the ray flakes when the seat was carved. His plan was better than mine and I realized that he had as much to teach me as I had to teach him. A few days later, after the seat was shaped we both recognized that he had a special affinity for making the most of his material.
In woodworking, each piece of raw material is an individual. Every tree in the forest and every board sawn from a log is different from the next one. Within that raw material there is a mix of beauty and strength along with flaws. Those flaws are often the result of various stresses the tree experiences as it grows.
Some trees grow in easy locations, with good soil and plenty of light and water. Others develop in difficult circumstances, struggling to place their roots in rocky places where the odds of growing straight and tall are slim. It’s easy to think that the trees that are difficult to reach aren’t worth the effort to harvest, but the most beautiful wood comes from those individuals and the most beauty is found where a tree has grown around an injury or in a difficult environment. Plantation grown trees may be straight and tall on the outside, but are boring on the inside.
To see the transformation of rough-cut lumber into a beautiful piece of furniture is inspiring and rewarding. I saw that happen last week as Monday’s pile of lumber became Saturday’s chairs. I saw a bigger and better transformation take place in the five students who were making the chairs. They were the recipients of an opportunity to get away and do something different. That opportunity was the result of their hard work and determination, and they made the most of it.
They were eager to learn, respectful of the tools, materials and people around them and they worked diligently. They helped each other out made a huge impression on me. Some of them will be moving on to jobs in the woodworking industry, and some have another year of high school. All of them have tough decisions to make on a daily basis. They can choose to look at the good things they have to offer the world and move forward, or they can look at themselves the way most of the world does, write themselves off as not worthwhile and give up.
When I look at the five students in the class I see the future of woodworking and a solution to many of the problems our society faces. The headline of this post mentions the six most important woodworkers I know. Number six is the young man at the left of the picture. He graduated from the North Salem woodworking program two years ago. When he entered the program, he was thinking about dropping out of school. Instead, he graduated, now works full time as a teaching assistant in the program, and is a full-time college student pursuing a degree in education.
These six young people, and the adults who have worked to help them have my utmost respect and admiration. Think about what could happen if the program at their school was available at the high school in your neighborhood, or that scary neighborhood in the bad end of your town. The whole story would fill a book.
I wasn’t the only one interested in this class and these young people