When I was in middle school, I had this insane dream that I was going to be an engineer – my dumb adolescent mind thought that it would be fun to play with robots for the rest of my life because that’s clearly what engineers do. So in the eighth grade, when FCPS allows students to take two electives, I took Problem Solving, a woodshop-type class that my teachers tried to push on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students. We focused on basic design techniques and use of basic machinery, applying what we learned to projects with magnets, Styrofoam, paper, and finally actual wood. Our final assignment was to make a safe child’s toy using the materials at our disposal. My good friend Tommy and I made this toy train:
This wasn’t a horribly complicated toy. The front piece of the train connected to the caboose via a dowel rod. The top of each car was removable, so that a child could switch them, making mixed-color cars. It rolled pretty well, considering. The edges were sanded down so that no child would hurt himself. The paint job was nowhere near perfect, and it was obvious that the toy was built by thirteen year old kids. But as far as I remember, we got a good grade on it. I gave Tommy the train to take home, and I put it out of my memory. I quickly, thankfully, moved out of my engineer phase.
Toward the end of my time in high school, I remembered the train. I was sorry that I’d given it up. I wasn’t sure why I was so attached to the stupid thing; it was a school project, it had passed, and it wasn’t extraordinary by any measure. But I missed it. I wanted to see it again. I wanted to prove to myself that it actually existed, and that I wasn’t just making up the existence of this toy.
I went to Tommy’s house for a party about six weeks ago, and towards the end of the night the half-dozen of us that were left sat in a circle and reminisced about the past. I remembered Problem Solving and started to rant on about it like a loon. Tommy ran upstairs to his bedroom and returned with a surprise: our dumpy, wonderful little train.
I’m a musician, just like my parents and many of my good friends. But aside from recordings, there’s no real evidence that anything was actually created when I played. So having a physical thing that can be touched, handled, and held was surreal. I can’t overstate the importance of having something physical that you can point to and say “hey, you see this? That came from my two hands.” It’s an incredible source of memories and pride. Humans are meant to create. In this world that is turning toward space-saving technology and the digitization of everything under the sun, physical records are disappearing.
There’s no real definition of what’s appropriate to hold on to; it’s a personal decision. Photographs. Doodles. Trophies. Medals. Uniforms. Printed-out pages of a piece of writing. Ceramics. A piece of confetti from that record-breaking basketball game. Whatever. Just keep some physical proof of accomplishments and important moments of your life. It will do wonders for your self-esteem. And in the years to come, it will be a fantastic reminder of how far you’ve come and the good that has come of your skills.
After playing with it like a giddy child, I took a picture of the train and left it in Tommy’s hands. I trust him with it – still, I warned him that if it’s ever harmed, there will be hell to pay. It may not be the perfect toy, an example of fine woodworking, or particularly useful in any way, but that train means the world to me.
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