If Rafters Could Teach

September 11, 2017


A master carpenter and a “master” rafter teach Nick Stoneman valuable lessons.

I awoke and climbed out of bed, a bit sore and creaky. I had spent the prior few days busily cutting, assembling, and raising the walls of the small bedroom addition on our home – and my muscles had a few thoughts to share (like, “Stick to that desk job!”).

I always have had mixed feelings about this phase. With the walls done, it was time to start on the roof – an exciting time as the framing reaches for the sky and new shapes emerge. I love this new dimension and the sense of volume and space that comes when the rafters that serve as the structure for the roof go in place. But that is offset by the anxiety I have over actually laying out the rafters, with all of the myriads of cuts needed in each one, cuts that if done wrong means that they won’t meet snugly with their partner from the opposite wall, way up top at the ridgeline.

Typically, the process calls for creating a “master” rafter, which is used as the template for all the others (about 30 of them). If the master is wrong, life gets pretty cranky on the job site as many hours and 30 cut rafters later, there is still no roof structure! And therein lies the basis for my early morning anxiety.

Being a carpenter can be very humbling. One of the keys is knowing what you don’t know, and being willing to learn more from those who, simply stated, know more. The truly humbling part comes when you decide you know more than you do, and you forge ahead only to discover that your hubris outpaced your ability and you really didn’t know the best way to install a countertop, lay out a window, plumb a wall, and - make a master rafter.

My challenged relationship with rafters dates back to over
three decades ago when I was framing houses for a living. We weren’t the best of friends, the rafters and I, and nothing had transpired over the ensuing 30 years to really change that.
Until Kelly came on the scene.

Kelly is a master carpenter who just gets it. She can swing a hammer and just as easily design in CAD to lay out a floor plan. With pride tucked away deeply in one of my tool belt pockets, I went to Kelly and sought her counsel on how best to go about laying out the master rafter, sharing with her my concerns about getting it right. In true Kelly style, she showed little interest in these concerns, focusing instead on the matter at hand. I could tell pretty quickly things were about to get interesting.

We pulled a 16-foot long, 2x10 plank from the lumber pile and placed it on a pair of sawhorses. Kelly then proceeded to give a basic lesson in the geometry of a triangle, drawing the details on the side of the rafter, bringing back distant memories of
my geometry class theorems from years ago that I had allegedly committed to memory. I did a lot of nodding and acknowledging in an attempt to convey that I was right there with her.

When she was finished explaining, she said, “OK, it’s all yours”, or words to that effect, and went back to what she was doing before being interrupted. Well, I guess I should have listened better. I tried to re-interpret what she had diagramed and kept feeling like I was missing a step (or two!). After about 10 minutes of spinning my intellectual wheels, I gathered up enough courage to seek her out. (Yes, this is where the humbling part truly kicked in.)

She returned, with a bit of a frown, perplexed over what the issue might be. I shared my confusion, and she smiled and said, “No worries. You got this, but let’s do it again”. She handed me the pencil, the framing square, and the tape, along with the expectation that I do the work. The transition from her doing it and me watching to having me do it with her watching was daunting. My mind froze. I was unsure of what to do, though I did have the pencil gripped properly (as well as tightly!).

But then her teaching began. Very calmly, she teased out from me the thinking, the logic, the steps without telling me anything, but simply by asking. Her calm tone found its way through my confusion and offered direction and guidance. It enabled me to focus and solve, to see the larger picture while attending to the details. She was teaching and I was an actively involved student.

I learned far more than how to lay out a rafter that day. I learned what it may feel like to be seen as the “dumb one” who doesn’t get it and felt self-doubt and the feeling of incompetence. I learned that doing rather than listening was far more impactful. I gained a real sense of how the tone and support of a teacher can open doors to learning that may otherwise stay closed. I experienced what inquiry can do to draw knowledge from a student far more effectively than simply telling him what he needs to know.

Without knowing it, Kelly’s lesson went well beyond how to make a rafter. She brought me back into the classroom where
I could be so importantly reminded of the vital relationship between the student and teacher. She allowed me to experience the emotions that come with learning, and the difference that comes with the encouragement of a caring teacher. What a gift!

As for the rafters, we are today, more deeply bonded. They found their home within the roof structure of our addition where they now sit nestled and secure, looking down from on high. As for me, the volumes they spoke about what I can do better as a carpenter but, most importantly, as an educator, are lessons that will not, and cannot, be forgotten. For that, I am truly grateful.

And, as for Kelly, if she ever wants to become a classroom teacher, I sure hope that SSM is high on her list!

  • News Image