Why we care about a shop class teacher resigning.
WORDS Chris Nelson IMAGES Paul King
Teacher Alvin Lawrence told me, “I'm willing to take everything I've learned in my 40 years and spill it out onto my students. And when my students get excited ... man, that gets me excited.” A month ago he handed in his letter of resignation after two years at Charleston Collegiate School. Alvin brought back “shop class” to the co-educational, independent day school on Johns Island, South Carolina, and started a custom motorcycle program for the students, encouraging them to cut, chop, weld, and rebuild unloved bikes.
Our first time speaking I asked Alvin how this part-time program and turned into a full-time job, and his response took an hour; I wouldn’t have gotten a word in if I’d wanted to. Through his overwhelming passion I could see how he hoped to better the lives of his students through tactile teaching, instilling an appreciation for the “old way” of doing things. But: “Teachers just don’t make good money, and I have a family to support and a mortgage to pay. And we’re supposed to be teaching these kids so that they can do what they want, not what we want. Do we actually want more of the same, or do we want a better world?”
Alvin moved his family to Charleston, South Carolina to take a master mechanic job with Mercedes-Benz. Sometime later he met the Charleston Collegiate School’s headmaster, Hacker Burr, who sent Alvin a video of High Tech High in San Diego and said he wanted to create a similar project-based learning program at his school. Alvin had never taught, but he wanted the job; since reading Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew B. Crawford, he’s been an avid crusader for the preservation of hands-on work. (“We need people who are willing to bring these trades back,” according to Alvin. “We need it. It's not that it’d be nice if we had it. I think our country needs this. We need a new work ethic, for people to pay attention to what they do, and to have pride in what they do.”)
His first classroom, shared with two art teachers, wouldn’t cut it for shop class, so Alvin brought his welder and grinder from home and worked out of his Chevy’s truck bed until a generous parent donated two shipping containers for the class to use. Another parent donated $10,000 to the program, and tools poured in from various individuals who felt the energy around Alvin. He started letting students wrench on his personal motorcycles, including an '82 Kawasaki KZ1000, an '83 Honda CB1100, and a CB400 Super Sport. The kids took to it, and almost none of them had put hands on motorcycle before. One girl, who couldn’t get along with anyone, wanted to work on her own bike, so Alvin gave her the CB400, which had been in an accident that shattered Alvin’s pelvis and left him with 15 pins in his leg. The girl pulled the engine, sourced a new-old replacement frame, and started reassembly and wiring on her own. Another boy fell in love with welding and became an underwater welder after graduating.
“If I could start my own shop, I would hire all these kids that have a passion for building and creating motorcycles,” says Alvin. “We learned a lot more than just motorcycles, but my true passion was in bringing these machines back to life with these kids.” Unfortunately, the seed Alvin hoped to plant couldn’t survive its harsh environment, and an underfunded school struggled to balance what’s best for its students with bullshit politics. A story I looked forward to telling to you is now a story I’m sad to tell. It’s a shame to see Alvin go because his actions affected and touched the lives of many young adults. It’s painful to watch passion be snuffed out because of money, but that’s the world we’ve crafted for ourselves, where the practice of working with our hands is slipping through our fingers.
Special thanks to Paul King for the photography on this piece.