How We Go On – With Axe HandlesBy Todd R. Nelson
If you are a teacher preparing a classroom, your hands are busy moving books, labeling, arranging the things you will need for the task of teaching and learning that will soon commence. And your thoughts are also preoccupied with the intellectual tools you’ll use in the process. And then there are those August “Teacher Dreams!”
At this moment of complex anticipatory delight and tension, I’ve always loved the lesson in a poem by Gary Snyder. It grows in resonance for me each year that I prepare for school, as I come to understand it more completely. Here it is:
One afternoon the last week in April
Showing Kai how to throw a hatchet
One-half turn and it sticks in a stump.
He recalls the hatchet-head
Without a handle, in the shop
And go gets it, and wants it for his own.
A broken-off axe handle behind the door
Is long enough for a hatchet,
We cut it to length and take it
With the hatchet head
And working hatchet, to the wood block.
There I begin to shape the old handle
With the hatchet, and the phrase
First learned from Ezra Pound
Rings in my ears!
‘When making an axe handle
the pattern is not far off.’
And I say this to Kai
‘Look: We’ll shape the handle
By checking the handle
Of the axe we cut with—’
And he sees. And I hear it again:
It’s in Lu Ji’s Wen Fu, fourth century
A.D. ‘Essay on Literature’—in the
Preface: ‘In making the handle
Of an axe
By cutting wood with an axe
The model is indeed near at hand.’
My teacher Shi-hsiang Chen
Translated that and taught it years ago
And I see: Pound was an axe,
Chen was an axe, I am an axe
And my son a handle, soon
To be shaping again, model
And tool, craft of culture,
How we go on.
In this era of multi-media avenues to information and communication, I’m glad to be reminded of the hand tool—a stone age one, at that. It simply reinforces the notion that models of thought are the greatest tools we employ with the young learners in our midst. It’s about thinking, after all—whether it’s digital code or agrarian implements. And the simpler functions of thought have not become less, but rather more, important: to accurately name things and ideas and actions; to say “yes” and “no;” “good,” “not-so-good;” to make judgments that protect us, advance us, inspire us. To know who we are, and who we are not.
The lesson in Snyder’s poem, and what makes it relevant to the imminent new season of work in the classroom, is how easily one can forget the ancient model at hand. In our own education, in our own prior teaching; in the education and teaching of our colleagues; we have models for all that we hope to do this year. We are never cut off from the wisdom, lore and past success that enable us to make “axe handles” with straight, strong grain that will survive rugged use and misaimed blows; the sure, individual grip for each user’s hand; and the beauty and elegance of any form which follows function.
Teaching is brave, strong, enduring and more significant to the future of our culture than the advent of the next big thing out of silicon valley or the graduate school or the department of education. If we look to the model of good tools, we are well-equipped to be new and familiar, accustomed and unaccustomed, innovative and traditional in ways that are exactly right for each child that we welcome to school. For all of us in this partnership, may the future months of moments cleave unto this wise purpose.
Todd R. Nelson is Head of School at The School in Rose Valley, Pennsylvania.