Building a Better…Birdhouse

I think I speak for all parents when I say that the hardest part of having school-aged children is doing their homework without the benefit of sitting in the classroom. Recently, my son had a homework assignment to design and build a birdhouse. He is not taking Shop class. Perhaps the purpose of this assignment was to give students an idea of the vocational opportunities available to them in this post bubble-burst economy. But I don’t know. I didn’t have the benefit of hearing the lecture or the context that sold the rationale to give birds houses while so many Americans are losing their own homes.

The directions my son shared with me specified that the student should work independently with minimal adult support. Which was fine with me. He showed me a rough sketch of what he hoped to build along with a list of all of the power tools that would be required to complete the birdhouse. His blueprint and list made some rather bold assumptions about his abilities. Apparently, Jack thinks that he is the son of a carpenter. And if he could, indeed, do this on his own, I determined that I would call him Jesus.

I have heard the term “power saw” before. Jack’s list included the use of four different power saws with fancy names like circular, table, jig and miter. I held up a hand-saw that I think was used to cut drywall. “If the wood is really wet, this might do the trick.”

I ended up borrowing tools from my neighbor. Weeks before I had borrowed his step ladder to wash my windows. Apparently, locking the legs of a step ladder is not as straightforward as it seems. I fell off twice while my neighbor watched through his window, shaking his head. Along with the tools, he made me sign a waiver holding him blameless for any likely outcome like a severed finger.

While he went back inside to print us directions for the quickest route to the hospital, Jack and I got to work. It wasn’t long before the birdhouse started looking like…well, a birdhouse. It had a base, walls and a roof. Add a little sofa, and it would be fine for a few feathered friends.

The time flew by. When we finished we were high-fiving and knuckle-bumping as if we were two NASA scientists who had just figured out how to return a disabled space shuttle safely home. And then it started to dawn on me what may have been the intended lesson for this project. Certainly the teacher wasn’t expecting perfection. How can you do something perfectly when it’s your first try? The warped wood complimented the imperfect builders. Obstacles such as knots and an utter lack of skills made us improvise along the way. Instead of sticking with the blueprint, barriers led us to change the blueprint to reflect a less-than-perfect reality. Success in  building a birdhouse, like in life, isn’t about having a plan and sticking to it; rather, it’s about being willing to make modifications when you hit the unexpected.

In the end, we were pleased. But not because the birdhouse was perfect. In fact, it looked a little like a bird fun house, the kind of place teenage birds would dare their friends to visit late at night. We had redefined success. For us, success was about working on something together where we were on an equal playing-field of incompetence. It involved talking to each other and negotiating the best course of action in front of us. The time included a lot of laughter along with moments of frustration and doubt. But the lesson we walked away with was that we could learn from each other to produce a better result than either of us would have accomplished on our own.

For Jack’s part, he learned that BirdHouse WOW starts with teamwork and fun. And as a parent, I learned to not procrastinate to start a semester project. I have to develop better time management skills if Jack is going to do well in high school.

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