Shop Safety - A Rite of Passage

I began my IYRS experience in the middle of a pandemic, transitioning from running an international high school boarding program in Rome, Italy to living and working in the United States. Until then, my work experience had bounced between crewing on sailboats and teaching in traditional classroom settings. I had always worked with and relied on marine systems, but my understanding was frustratingly superficial. My access to systems information and instruction was often secondary to my daily sailing and cleaning responsibilities. Conversations about boat maintenance and troubleshooting happened around me, but I never felt I knew enough to contribute more than simply completing delegated tasks. Then, between a move and a pandemic, I had a moment to step back and reflect. IYRS had always been in the back of my mind, having a number of friends who had gone through the Boatbuilding and Marine Systems programs. I remember being worried that I was too old and too inexperienced to succeed in the course. Not until I spoke to an IYRS admissions representative did I realize how ideal the systems program could be for me: a moment, in an unprecedented time, to “level up” and prioritize the kind of experiential education that inspires me most.

The Marine Systems course began with a shop safety rotation and a project rooted in IYRS’s boatbuilding tradition: the construction of a pine tool tote. Panic! This was not just a learning curve, but a learning cliff. The extent of my woodworking experience involved hammering together some two-by-fours, and sanding teak for varnish. Week One, and I was already questioning my eligibility for the course. There was a reason I’d signed up for Systems, not Boatbuilding & Restoration! Despite being the teacher who had always reminded students that we learn most in the moments of discomfort, my biggest challenge was embracing this moment to be uncomfortable. I am forever grateful to my first partner in the electrical unit, Charlie, a wise twenty-year-old, who said simply, “Lisa, it’s not a big deal, you gotta start somewhere.” It was ok to not have all the answers. I did not realize until later how perfect this initial woodworking project would be for my personal growth and how crucial it would be for putting me in the right frame of mind for learning. It was also pivotal for informing my future teaching. I could now deeply sympathize with students who were taking risks and trying something they had never done (or even thought about) before. 

Another mantra that helped me through the growing pains of orientation week was Boatbuilding & Restoration instructor Joel Senger’s advice, “Small chips, small mistakes.” It helped me understand how to break down a daunting task into manageable pieces, manageable risks. Like Charlie had reminded me, I had to start somewhere. When presented with the end product, an elaborate tool tote, my instinct told me to flee. I had almost zero prior knowledge, zero muscle memory, no idea where to even begin. However, when presented with a chisel and how to chip away material following the grain; suddenly, I had a first step with far less risk. 

In the end, despite my near identity crisis, I built an exemplary tool tote. Not only did I learn some tenets of woodworking, I also learned about myself and what I was capable of once I let go of ego, doubt, and fear of failure. I came to IYRS to learn. Seems obvious, but it wasn’t until I was humbled by this woodworking rite of passage that I understood the necessary friction involved in order for the learning to rush in. Going through the initial struggle and achieving the final product boosted my confidence in a way that truly fortified me for future challenges.

Returning to IYRS as an assistant instructor, I am reminded of all the emotions that the initial weeks might elicit. For some, an overly simple task, perhaps nuisance, compared to their prior boatbuilding experience. For others, like my former self, a seemingly impossible challenge - running the risk of being exposed as an imposter. I feel uniquely qualified to help the Marine Systems students work through the personal challenges of these initial weeks. This woodworking initiation can be hugely empowering: a concrete example of what you can accomplish when you do adequate research, practice, ask for help, and take calculated risks. The Marine Systems course provides countless opportunities to understand this principle. Not only did I acquire the foundational knowledge to be a marine technician, I learned how to access new information and strategically problem-solve. I no longer panic when I’m presented with a task I’ve never attempted before (aside: welding was a notable triumph worthy of a separate blog post). 

Thanks to my time at IYRS, I am confident that I have the necessary skills to solve problems and create solutions. To some, a simple tool tote: another thing to do; to me, an invaluable lesson that changed the trajectory of my life. In my teaching role my sincere hope is to impart this approach to learning and facilitate this kind of enduring self-reliance. You might not have all the answers, but you have the tools to access them.