The Irony of the Wooden Box

"Students don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care." - John C. Maxwell

Every teacher has a reason for entering the field of education.  For some, it was that one teacher that made a lasting impression on them.  For others, it was because they were inspired to make a difference in the lives of children.  For me, it was a powerful lesson that I learned from working with my father.

My dad was always hard on me when I was growing up.  As a kid, I used to help my dad with lots of different projects—tending the garden, working with wood, fixing appliances, assembling and installing hardware, the list goes on.  He took pride in being a handyman and he could fix just about anything that was broken.  However, there was always one thing that he could never repair—the emotional damage that he caused me after all of those years of working with him.

I remember this one time when I was helping my dad build a custom entertainment center that he wanted to use for the TV in our living room.  I was so excited to learn from him, and to be able to see the finished product that we made from scratch.  But after helping my dad for just thirty minutes, I quickly learned that I never wanted to work with him again.

It started with him making me his gopher—he would tell me to "go for" this and "go for" that.  It didn't take long for me to realize that I was just going to fetch the different tools and materials that he needed to use.  The problem was that I didn't know the correct terminology for any of the items he was asking me to get for him.  For example, he asked me to bring him a Phillips-head screwdriver and some screws.  I had no idea what a Phillips-head screwdriver was at the time, so I accidentally brought him a flat head.  I recall him being so mad at me for not only bringing the wrong screwdriver, but for not knowing what a Phillips-head screwdriver was.  He yelled at me, cursed at me, and down-right degraded me.  I began to cry. I felt demoralized and stupid.   It was a painful memory that I will never forget. 

Unfortunately, this is just one example of the many occasions in which my dad would ridicule me.  Because of these events throughout my childhood, I grew up never learning anything about carpentry, or even how to use mechanical tools. What's worse, I felt like I wasn't smart, and developed a fear of making mistakes.

A Silver Lining

There is some good that came out of this situation.  Because of the way my dad treated me, I made a vow to myself that I would try my best to never make anyone feel stupid, and to explain things to others with humility and empathy.  Surprisingly, these destructive childhood experiences ultimately led to my desire to become a teacher, and to make a career out of helping others learn.

Fast forward about 15 years, I graduated from college and landed my first job teaching math and science to middle school students.  After three years in this position, my principal at the time asked me to fill a vacancy that we had for a Career and Technical Education (CTE) teacher. I was willing to fill the role, but there was just one problem.  I had never taken a technology course, and I needed to get certified by the end of summer. 

So, after acknowledging my fear of hand tools and reliving all of the horrible encounters I had with my dad, I decided that this was a great opportunity to challenge myself.  I spent most of that summer studying the required CTE content and skills.  Not only did I learn the history and innovation of technology, I taught myself how to use mechanical and power tools that were in my middle school shop classroom. By the end of the summer, I had successfully passed the Praxis II in CTE, and was ready to step into my new role as a technology teacher.  

Even with an overwhelming feeling of accomplishment, I felt like there was still a piece of me missing.  I soon realized that I needed something to show for my achievement—to prove to myself, and to my father that I was able to overcome all of my negative childhood experiences.  It was in that moment when I decided to undertake my own carpentry project.  I was going to made a wooden box for my dad.  

I went to Home Depot to buy some lumber and hardware that I didn't already have at school.  I cut the wood with a power saw, sanded it, stained it, and assembled it with some screws and a Phillips-head screwdriver.  I finished it off with two hinges, a lock fixture, and took a step back to admire my work.  Now, this box was nothing to write home about, but it was my box, and I made it.

This is a photo of the actual box that I made for my dad

The weekend before school started I drove back home to Delaware to visit my parents. I didn't tell my dad that I was making him a box. I wanted it to be a surprise.  After dinner I asked my dad to help me get something out of my car.  I opened the trunk of my car, and told my dad that I had something for him. That's when I showed him the box.  As he looked at it, he was dumbfounded and said, "What's this?" I replied, "It's a box that I made all by myself, and I want you to have it." Then, as a slight smirk curled upon his face he looked at me and said, "Thank you son, I'm very proud of you."

At that very moment, a sense of pride rushed over me, and I felt at peace with all of the hurtful moments that I had previously endured.  I had forgiven my father, and I had transformed myself.  

When I look back, I don't regret the experiences that I had working with my father. In fact, I'm actually grateful that I had these experiences, because it contributed to the man that I am today.  Those experiences inspired me to be a teacher, they shaped me into an effective educator and leader, and will guide me through my own experiences as a father to my son. 

The most profound lesson that I have taken away from all of this, is the power of relationships when it comes to teaching and learning.  We know that establishing and maintaining positive relationships with students is critical to their overall success and achievement.  We know that students learn best when they feel emotionally, psychologically, and physically safe.  And we know that "Students don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."

Over the years I have come to the following realization: It wasn't that I was unable to learn from my dad because I was ignorant, or stupid.  I was unable to learn from my dad because I didn't feel safe.  I didn't feel safe emotionally, and I didn't feel safe in order to take risks that would allow me to make mistakes.  Today, I now know that mistakes are necessary for learning to occur, and should be celebrated as part of the learning process. 

As I reflect on these moments as a child, I find it ironic that my dad tried so hard to get me interested in working with my hands, when in reality, I ended up working with my heart. I find it ironic that my dad tried so hard to teach me carpentry skills, but I ended up teaching myself.  And I find it ironic that my dad wanted so badly to build something with me, and I ended up building something for him. That is the irony of the wooden box.

What's your story? Share in the comments below.


My father is a great man and I have the utmost respect for him.  We have a great relationship and I have learned a lot from him.  I know that he loves me unconditionally, he has just always had difficulty showing affection.  He has supported me throughout my entire life, and I am grateful to be his son.