Tuesday, February 5, 2008

$500 well invested

There was a story recently circulating the wires about a ten-year-old Oregon boy who built his own snow machine from $500 worth of supplies.

First of all, I love that someone bought him an air compressor for Christmas. Now THERE is a present that is both productive and fun! I wanted toys like that starting around that age. I think I was ten in fact when I got a miter saw, and used $20 of birthday money to buy a tool belt to make my backyard fort-building easier.

Second of all, I love what a great example of real education this is. This kid (and his parents) took what could almost be considered an idle interest - snowboarding - and turned it in to an amazing lesson in science and engineering that will inspire him for the rest of his life. I can tell you that my humble achievements around that age played a major part in my confidence with computers. For me, the equivalent experience was probably running my own BBS around age 11. Or perhaps being on the cover of the Metro section of the Sacramento Union with my trusty SLR, taking a picture of a news reporter with a camera identical to mine.

Third of all, I love that his parents had the wherewithal to make him work for the money. That's great.

Here's what occurred to me though: how much education can one buy for $500 in a government school? To guess at my bias is simple. However as I type this I have not yet done the research. So I will head over to OpenBooksProject, a non-profit organization which performs studies on Oregon school spending, among other things.

Per student spending: $8,072
School days:
180 (est)
Cost per day: $44.84

In Oregon, $500 buys you just over 11 days of school for a youngster. If you pick the right 11 days you'll get to bring home a nice valentine to mom. But this kid got a snow machine, got to be on the news, and got a nice boost for the rest of his life.

Which is the better spent $500?

Okay, so that's a bit factitious. Suffice it to say that I long to share in that moment in Theo's life, when he suddenly realizes that he really CAN do anything he puts his mind to. Actually, it may have happened already.

It was this summer, when Theo was perhaps 14 months old. I had acquired, in a typical moment of false confidence, not one but two broken lawn mowers. That's right, the old 'make one working one out of two broken ones' routine. Well after they'd sat for a couple of months, one day I decided to finally roll them out and see what I could do with them. As soon as Theo saw what I was doing, he came right over to investigate. He made for the pile of bolts that I had removed. Seeking to distract him, I reached in to the toolbox and grabbed the least dangerous tool I could find - a large spark plug socket. He was looking for someplace to put it, so I directed him to tighten the wheels.

I watched with interest as he put the socket to each of the bolts on the two wheels to his side in turn. He experimented for a few moments how the socket fit. He became fascinated at the smaller bolts I was removing. As I put down the ratchet, he picked it up and tried to put it to the next bolt in turn. With a bit of guidance from me, he successfully mimicked the back and forth motion needed to work the ratchet. Watching him 'help' me take that mower apart was like watching the lights turn on.

To this day Theo (now almost Two) loves to 'fix' things. I will hand him a tool - toy or real - and indicate a toy or household object that needs repair, and he will attempt to repair it. Perhaps it's this way with all boys - but I expect to take it as far as it is within my ability to do so.

With his level of enthusiasm, and my level of passion for helping him develop as a young man, I fully expect that if I were to show Theo young
Forest Pearson's snow machine - or 'no ball' machine, to use Theo's language - we'd be building one in time for next winter.

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