It's the beginning of a new semester and new students are asking the same old questions, "Why must I take Math, English, History and Government when I want to be a nurse, lawyer, accountant or own and manage my store? Why is there a grade system? Wouldn't it be just as meaningful to give a pass/fail? Let's get serious. I have to sit in your class and listen to your lecture. That's enough pain as it is so just pass me."
Since I take all questions very seriously, I answer every student to the best of my ability so he or she understands why education means just that: most students don't know what they don't know. Read that over three or four times. We are here to help the student realize that every discipline teaches one how to think in specific ways. The next step to answering those questions is understanding that a degree, diploma or certificate is only a beginning. Of course, walking across that stage or standing in front of your family and friends to receive that coveted piece of parchment or hunk of metal was earned at a great cost. It means you may be certified, but it does not mean you are qualified.
When I was a very young boy, my parents would ship me off to North Carolina for the summer, where I would work for my granddad Brown. I suppose he might be called a "jack-leg" builder by some folks, but I have always thought of him as a finish carpenter. He would meet with someone who wanted a house built there in the mountains that would survive the storms of summer and the brutal cold of winter. The price had to be fair and the finished product had to be satisfactory. The future owner would verbally and physically lay out the dimensions: "I want it to fit right here, overlooking the stream, front porch here and some back steps here and a path cleared to reach the out house — a two seater, if you please. I want a place for the stove in the kitchen, a small fireplace over there, two bedrooms with doors, one window in my bedroom, one by the fireplace and one at the front. Don't forget wood siding and light-colored shingles. Here's money for the materials and I'll give you the rest when the job is done."
Since Dad Brown was called a carpenter around those parts, he was certified. He also had the right to have that honor because he had proven over many years that he was qualified to have the title. He sure proved it to me.
After Dad Brown shook hands with the future owner, we'd jump into his old Chevy, which had been converted into what could be called a half truck, and drove to the suppliers. He picked every board, weighed every pound of nails, loaded every bag of cement and put every tool into every inch of available space. He ordered the cinder blocks, sand, rebar and whatever else he couldn't stick in his car to be delivered, and it had best be delivered when he wanted it and where he wanted it.
My job? I counted and sorted every piece of wood, examined every nail, cleaned every tool, sharpened those I could and made dag-gummed sure they were accounted for at the end of the day. I dug the footers, mixed the concrete, gave him every tool when he hollered for it and listened very carefully when he explained why things were done the way he said they were to be done. I had to clean up standing in an old wash tub, ate like a field hand and slept like a log. I think I made two dollars a week.
I can't call myself a carpenter or a qualified builder, but I can say that I could have been if that had been my calling.
I guess I see myself as a teacher who sets the stage for the student who must be prepared to learn his or her trade. The fact is that there is so much preparing that must be accomplished before the student is ready to face a world that is demanding, requiring and expecting only the best.
I stood with Dad Brown when he gave the keys to the owner and I'll never forget the moment when the man shook granddad's hand, paid him in full and said, "Nice house, Mr. Brown. It'll last me a lifetime."
A good and complete education will last a lifetime and so will a good man and a good woman.