Monday, September 3, 2012

The Importance of Digging

LEGO Bar Mitzvah boy made by Harry 

This piece has just been published in the HomeSchool association of California's monthly magazine. I thought I'd share it here, too...

When my oldest son, Harry, was in preschool (in the years before the idea of homeschooling was even a glimmer of an idea in our brains) we decided to keep him there for an extra year, to delay his entering kindergarten. We were not aiming to give him an academic edge, we just felt he needed another year of digging in the sandbox, another year of enjoying his passion.

Digging figured largely into his array of interests. Big diggers, shovels, sand, dirt. For years he collected information about all the large earthmovers. We had a sandbox, we went to the park and the beach. Dig dig dig. Holes and tunnels, moats, and waterways. When we moved to the country seven years later we lured him with images of acres of dirt to dig in and an old blue tractor he could learn to drive.

That passion for digging and machinery was closely linked to a love of Duplo, then Lego, trains, monster trucks, and…I’m sure none of this is particularly unfamiliar to you, right?
When building with Lego wasn’t enough (and by “building” I mean inventing new and amazing creations, not the ones from the instruction manuals, which were promptly lost and rarely built more than once; big Lego sets were for scoring huge quantities of cool pieces), Harry began to search the web for inspiration and found customized Lego. He learned to use a dremel and drilled miniscule holes into the sides and heads of mini-figs (little Lego people) into which he glued extra arms and horns. He bought and learned to use a sticker making machine to make new decals for the mini-fig faces and bodies as well. He ordered special parts and used them to create whole new categories of custom Lego pieces.

Recently, I was organizing some of our digital photo and video files and found “piles” of movies he’d made years ago with Lego stop-action animation, silly animated movies with action figures, and plain old silly kid comedies. I thought about the huge bins of foam swords and modified-Nerf guns cluttering every corner of our house. I thought about the three bins of “dress up” clothes we keep around for impromptu theatrical productions and the bin full of multicolored rolls of duck tape, mostly down to their last few feet. And then I thought about the wood scraps turned into boxes and frames, the PVC pipe turned into potato cannons and marshmallow shooters. Materials. Not only does Harry have a huge love for creating, he loves his supplies.

Many of Harry’s passions (one could call them obsessions) have an artsy-craftsy look. Beyond the Lego customization, he has delved into polymer clay, duck tape (he’s taught classes at the HSC conference several times and sold his duck tape rose pens at the MAKER faire once), chainmail, computer graphics, and PhotoShop. This kid is always coming up with a new hobby, a new outlet for all of his ideas, a new item to collect. At age 12 he reinvented one of our favorite games, River, Road and Rail (from Ravensburger), into a travel edition with magnetic board and pieces. He wrote an article about it which was published in MAKE magazine. Very cool for my budding inventor.

This passionate explosion of creativity has never looked orderly. After all, A.A. Milne said, “One of the advantages of being disorderly is that one is constantly making exciting discoveries.” His room is chaotic, paper scraps, ruined duck tape pieces, and foam litter the hall outside his room, the rug under the project table (I mean, the dining room table), and the deck. Some projects are completed, some not. Harry is an odd kind of perfectionist who, unlike me who spends untold hours trying to choose the exact right font for a poster, expects things to be perfect the very first go. His work sometimes lacks precision and fine detail. But he’s often already on to the next invention, the next solution to a puzzle, the next opus, too busy to worry about that.

There was a time when I wondered what would come from this. For some reason, it didn’t occur to me that this love of materials and building and creating would be able to manifest anything worthwhile. For some reason I looked past his constant stream of creations and forgot my mantra “it’s the process not the product that counts.” As he moved deeper into his teen years, I kept worrying about college and careers. I fretted, “What does all this Lego mean?” When I stepped back I could appreciate that creative energy that surged through him, but up close my academic sheriff was clacking in my ear about what hard-core subjects was he mastering and why wasn’t he interested in chemistry and when would he buckle down and study math?

And then one day a few years back I had a realization. He and I sat at the kitchen table chatting about the previous two weeks and what’d he’d been working on. I had been away dealing with a family matter, and we are unschoolers, so his time was his own then as always. What had he done? He’d Steampunked a Nerf gun, he’d created some goggles for his Steampunk costume, he’d worked on his chainmail tunic, he’d made something in his dad’s workshop in the basement, something about a saw. My brain was going straight to “What will he do for a living?” when suddenly it hit me.

Harry in his Frogoggles and a bleached design shirt.

“How would you like to check out some backstage theatre classes at the JC?” I asked him. “I think you would love making props, costumes and sets. And I think they would love you!” (I’ve always felt that one of the down-sides to homeschooling was the lack of a marching band, but it suddenly hit me that there was also a serious lack of a theatre arts department and had he attended a brick and mortar high school he’d definitely be hanging out there backstage!) Three months later he walked into the Props class ready to build props for the upcoming shows. He came home saying, “I sat there in that class tonight and realized this is what I want to do with my life.” At age 16 he was the youngest in the class, but he already knew his way around the power tools (see above) and even helped show some of the other students how to use them.

Now, two years later he has taken props (three times), set design, lighting, and acting (as well as anthropology, 3D art, American Sign Language, and more). He was the assistant props designer for two shows last year, the spot(light) op(erator) for a show the year before. He gets glowing reports from his theatre arts professors and knows that ultimately this is what he wants to do with his life.

(Interestingly, that lack of attention to detail? That’s the right mindset when creating on-stage props. Who can tell that a line is wiggly or a drip of paint escaped the outline from 40 - 100 feet away?)

He’s still bubbling over with enthusiasm about all things crafty. And Lego still sits in large bins in his room. There are times we still hear him, at age 18, sift-sift-sifting through the multitudinous plastic pieces, a new building plan coursing through his brain. He has plans this fall to do an apprenticeship with a contractor who runs an intentional spiritual community in Hawaii. For two months he will be meditating, doing yoga and learning to build houses. (Did I neglect to mention that one of his passions is meditation, something he’s been practicing for the past seven years?) We never know where each new creative pursuit will lead, but at least now I finally thoroughly accept that it doesn’t matter, because he’s living in his passion.


Larry Mellman said...

Susie (aka Three Boys Farm Mama) said...

Larry, I don't know you and I have no idea how you found my blog, but thank you so much for that link! It's a fantastic look into the props world and I immediately passed it on to Harry. ~Susie

Larry Mellman said...

Susie, my sister Elaine (Struhl) pointed me toward your blog and I genuinely enjoyed your article. :-)

Susie (aka Three Boys Farm Mama) said...

Of course, Larry! Then we've met in real life as well (loooong ago). And your sister is beloved to me as well! Thanks, Elaine!!

Gillian said...

Susie, an awesome post! And I LOVE the picture. Thank you SO much for your words on my blog. I don't know why I let comparisons get in my way, why I bother with it.

I am amazed at Harry - how he found such an interest and is pursuing it so wholeheartedly. *That* is what I want for my kids. And it's got me thinking that this is something Cyrus might enjoy someday, since he is also a tinkerer, builder, creator, stop-motion animator, and so on, with a dozen projects going at once.

Miss seeing you.