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  • Charlie Plant

Travels With Charlie: Ranch Work . . . or, It Looks Good From the Freeway

The Harbor Freight Fellows Initiative seeks to heighten the awareness that trade skills are life skills, transferable to any and all kinds of work youth may choose to pursue in the long and varied work lives they will traverse.

Any success I have had in my 24 years as a teacher and principal have been due to skills I acquired in my over thirty years in the trades. How to approach a project, from the initial overview to detailed planning. How to organize tools and move effectively from one day’s tasks to another. How to be a member of a team and work smoothly in concert with one another no matter our race, gender, age politics, religion etc. How to adapt and solve problems, and how to THINK in order to ACHIEVE!

This past weekend I did a small construction/remodel project for my wife at her workplace that reminded me of these skills, and the joys of working with my hands and mind. She works for a non-profit as their office manager, administrative go-to person. She does not have an office but is in an open area. In the age of COVID this presents some real challenges for her safety and peace of mind. Anytime anyone she doesn’t know comes into her area she was subject to the anxiety around COVID safety, as well as to actual exposure.

As a result she had constructed a pretty funky attempt at providing some safety. I took a look at it and knew “not acceptable” and went into action.

Above all, the trades are action. But VERY organized, purposeful action that entails a series of steps to ensure a successful outcome. It is this trades-based process that I engaged in for over thirty years as a professional house painter that is responsible for ALL the skills that have contributed to any success I have had as a teacher and principal in the last 24 years.

I am not a finish carpenter. I’m not any kind of carpenter. The only tools I have are a chop saw, hammer, screw driver, variable speed drill, and level. But my years in the trades taught me how to look at a problem and tackle it. The initial “helicopter view” gives me a general idea, as well as materials and tools to assemble in order to begin. I looked at my wife’s space and saw a solution through the lens of what I could accomplish. That’s the first step – assess the task within achievable boundaries. Once I had this vision, and had assembled the first set of tools and materials, it was time to get on the site and start.

First tool of a tradesperson:

It’s not the music, it’s the environment: of human-ness, of being comfortable. The physical environment of a workspace is so important, including that of sound and light. I took this with me into every classroom, every school I worked in.

Second, set up a “shop”: Purposefully organize tools and materials for the job, that gets re-organized at the end of each day to prepare for tomorrow’s work.

Then, it’s into action, step by step, glitch by glitch, adjustment by adjustment.

Finally, after a couple days, it’s done. It had to be temporary but sturdy, aesthetically OK, and provide Ayn with a sense of security. The final design involved a 4X6 plexiglass window for light, visibility and openness, the use of a Shoji screen for warmth, a wide opening with a clear transparent curtain that could be drawn when someone in the area to minimize COVID exposure. There was no way to secure it to the floor or walls, so it had to be free standing yet not susceptible to toppling.

Look carefully and you can see the clear curtain drawn across the opening – a shower curtain from the local hardware store, next to the plexiglass window. The upholstered panels provide sound dampening, the Shoji screen a touch of warmth, and the plexiglass and curtain airiness and light.

This was not a project of precise finish carpentry. It was Ranch Work . . . .inexpensive, done with tools and materials at hand, and common sense. There were innumerable challenges around leveling, plumb, stability, and cost. All met on the fly, as it was being built. Sound familiar, educators?

Next, a trip to South Carolina to meet some of our Harbor Freight Fellows in a very special corner of the world . . . . . .


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