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Volume 38 Issue 15 • August 7 - 13, 2008
now in our 37th season

What Do You Own?

by Robert P. Barsanti

He was selling his tools.  The man I knew, but not well.  He wore paint flecked jeans, an Ironman t-shirt, and a well-faded Celtics cap.  We were seated at the Downyflake on a Tuesday morning:  I was deep in the sports page, and he was deep into cell-phone negotiations.  The Makita would get so much, the skil-saw so much more, and the ladders he would throw in.  The conversation grew increasingly one-sided.  He nodded with a curt “yeah” every few seconds, then agreed to meet in an hour.  He snapped shut his phone (also paint flecked) sipped his coffee and ordered a plate of biscuits.  Within an hour, he would no longer own his tools.  I am not sure what he now owned.

What do we own?  My breakfast partner had some old tools that he was happy to part with, so it is hard to say he owned those tools in anything but the legal sense.  They were not a part of him or who he was.  They helped him earn money to buy things.  Ownership, to my mind, has little to do with legal or physical possession.  Instead, it has to do with creation and cultivation. Red Auerbach had no title to the Boston Garden, but he certainly owned the Celtics.  Vincent Van Gogh sold the “Mona Lisa,” but he still owned it.  Edouard Stackpole exchanged very little money to put items in the Nantucket Historical Association, but it was very much his.  We own what we give ourselves to.  If we give our hearts and our sweat and ourselves fully, it becomes ours.  There may never be a deed or a marker, but a job well done will mutely trumpet the doer.

Two days before I had breakfast at the Downyflake, I met a carpenter and a carpenter’s assistant who were building a deck.  The deck was tucked in behind a rental house, just under two overgrown bushes and in a neighborhood with pickup trucks, bicycles, and gravel front yards.  Neither the carpenter, nor his assistant, was going to get paid; they worked as part of a quid pro quo.  No architect had drawn the plans, no contractor had specified a timetable, and no owner hovered around the saws.  In short, there was nothing to prevent the project from including late arrivals, early departures, and long liquid lunches in the shade.

Instead, the two men appeared at eight in the morning, measured, figured on the back of a National Grid overdue notice, and began digging.  To some, the easy way required several cement blocks placed about eight inches down.  But this carpenter owned the deck.  He and his assistant dug three-foot-deep holes, filled them with Sakrete, and then placed posts.  Two days later, the deck was complete but for the finish coat of stain. 

No one will ever see the posts planted three feet into the ground.  The house will be handed from tenant to tenant, and then owner to owner, until someone decides to bulldoze the entire structure.  No one will stand in the backyard, admire the deck, and then ask about the support posts.  No manager will ever question the extra hours spent on the quality work.  No one will ever notice the extra time and care put into building the deck the right way, but two people:  The two owners.

Teachers work in far less visible medium than concrete and pine.  Unfortunately the worst teachers, like the worst carpenters, never own anything but a paycheck.  They measure their days in worksheets, problems sets, and chapter headings.  If a short-cut can lower the grading pile, then let the bubble sheets and videotapes flow.  The semesters are measured by vacations, the years are counted up to retirement, and in the end, they own nothing.  

The best teachers own students.  They stay with them after school, worry about them on the car ride home, and dream about new ways to poke and prod their reluctant minds.  To them, a curriculum is a set of tools and a grade reflects growth.  The carpenter can see the work that he owns, the teacher cannot.  A student is a slowly simmering stew of ideas and experiences.  Teachers never know how important the spices are that they throw in.  Three months after graduation, the student has moved on.  Ten years later, that year of ceramics is as talked about as often as the support posts for the deck. 

Unlike carpenter’s projects, you can get two hundred examples of a teacher’s work together, if you do it at the Chicken Box.  So, it must have been very rewarding for Ritch Leone to come in for his Roast last Wednesday and see all that he owned.

The Chicken Box was arrayed in its islander best.  The Junior Miss Throne sat on stage for the guest of honor, the air conditioning worked as well as it ever had, and the crowd was far more interested in telling stories and catching up, than it was in the auction.  The benefit, for Camp Ta-Kum-Ta, had its own islander gloss.  Unlike the other auctions of the summer, this one did not have sailing lunches on a J Boat, rounds of golf in Ireland, or rare and dusty bottles of Pinot Noir.  Instead, Rocky Fox and Bill Santos auctioned off a hundred gallons of heating oil, a year of rubbish removal, and a gold crown from Dr. Paul Roberts.  The crowd was Budweiser, not Bordeaux.

Leone’s legacy was in that room.  And, from most of the stories, it was about failure.  Rocky, the current owner of the Box, told how Leone had failed him twice.  Others, in the Roast, told their own tales of paintings not finished, birdhouses not built, and ceramics left unfired.  But then, when you listened under the story, you heard the same people claim that they never would have graduated had it not been for Ritch, that they never would have learned to stick to a project, to trust what they liked, and to try something that they never thought they could do.  His classroom had been a refuge and his project had been an achievement, even if the work was long since consigned to storage or even the dump.

Under the Mickey Mouse ears and spinning propeller, he bought them by caring.  He listened to their break-ups, their firings, the arrests, the divorces, the heartaches, and the victories.  He worried and he berated and he interceded and he forgave and, eventually, he stepped back and watched them emerge with a firmer foundation.  On this night, for once, he could see all that he had owned over the years.  Not many can claim all that he could.

Ownership is hard.  You need to take your time, do it right, and sweat.    You don’t get to leave early, you don’t get awards from the managers, and you don’t get the applause at the Leadership Retreat.  As a result, most of us don’t own much.  We mortgage, lease, manage, and endure.  We switch success for survival and measure it out in the trivia of test scores, paychecks, and goal assessment memos.  We hope that if we flurry the air with enough paper and keep moving, no one will notice that the holes we dug weren’t deep enough.

The best own all of their work.  The best doctors own their patients, the best carpenters own their buildings and, the best street sweepers own their streets.  And when the time comes to finally sell your tools and hang it up, they have something to look back on and claim as theirs.

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