Education Opinion

A Boat with Legs

By Emmet Rosenfeld — June 30, 2007 5 min read
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Readers of “Certifiable?”, last year’s blog chronicling my try for National Board Certification, will remember the dugout canoe my 10th grade Humanities students made along with the help of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation. Highlights included learning about primitive technology from a man clad in buckskins, building 3D models of Western- and Native American-authored novels to compare the authors’ worldviews, and camping out at historic Mount Vernon for an overnight burn-and-scrape party.

“Wind, Water & Stone” was the official title of the project, funded by a grant from a couple TJ grads who hit it big a few years back with a best-selling thriller called the Rule of Four (think DaVinci Code, set at Princeton). I and my co-grant writer, aptly-named force of nature disguised as an English teacher Milde Waterfall, proposed to give a hundred humanities students “a boat’s-eye view of culture, history and technology.” With our partners, history teachers Jen Bain and Carolyn Gecan, we guided the canoe project through our year.

Around each bend was a surprise, whether rough water that forced us to paddle together or an unexpected vista that made us catch our collective breath. A high point for me was the May launch from the banks of Mount Vernon. We christened the S.S. TJHSST (science and tech nerds love acronyms) by smashing a graphing calculator on the bow, then held our breath as the heavy craft slid down a soaped ramp into the water. The boat floated. Standing thigh deep in a river that runs through my life, pushing three kids at a time out into the current for a short ride, pretty much made my year.

And while the school year itself is over, the voyage goes on. The latest stretch is in progress as we speak: the log canoe is on display on the National Mall as part of the 31st annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Washington knows summer is here each year when white tents sprout on the greensward in front of the Smithsonian castle. The tents this year house exhibits, food and music from The Mekong Delta, Northern Ireland, and The Roots of Virginia.

Our boat sits in a yard next to a display of African-American oysterers, freedmen who have tended beds in the waters near Suffolk, Virginia for 7 generations. Across the way is a cooper fashioning barrels in the heat, beside a Williamsburg carpenter making a sailor’s chest from fresh yellow pine. The pinging of a mason’s mallet on cathedral stone makes its way over from Ireland.

Beside us, appropriately, is a recreation of John Smith’s shallop, a smallish sailing ship he built especially for exploring the Chesapeake Bay. It was sent over in two halves in the hulls of larger vessels, and assembled at Jamestown from where he made two voyages up and down the various rivers, including our own Potomac, that extend like fingers from the palm of the Bay itself. Now, a crew of ruddy-faced and slightly hirsute interpreters are on a 121-day voyage themselves, roughly retracing Smith’s route while stopping at festivals like this one along the way.

Our proximity to Smith’s boat let me see our own log canoe in a new light. On his travels into ever shallower waters, Smith and his men would no doubt have encountered Natives who paddled up in canoes similar to ours, offering their services as guides or sometimes attacking. One drawing in the Smith tent shows his men smashing log canoes of Nansemond raiders. The caption says the Indians quickly decided to pay protection in lieu of losing more of the labor-intensive boats.

That labor itself was also something for which I gained a new appreciation thanks to the serendipity of the Festival. Over in the Mekong Delta, a contingent of more than a dozen wiry men in traditional garb (black embroidered vests and matching chaps) happened to be making a dugout canoe, from a Tulip poplar log like ours, but with different methods. The Native American technology we used involved chipping the bark with stone adzes and then burning and scraping out the heart wood (we employed nontraditional tools like chainsaws at certain points to speed the process). The Mekong builders forego fire or two-stroke engine: at any hour of the two-week build, one can see three or four men at a time wielding Vietnamese axes-- the handles are bow-shaped, not straight-- sending up a spray of chips as they fashion their own log boat.

We had our own labor force back at our canoe. The oyster shells left strewn inside for effect turned out to be a magnet for children who enjoyed the hands on activity of scraping away at the still charred inner walls. While they did, students and I manning the display chatted with their parents, or whoever else strolled along to glance at our boat and the laminated posters we’d made in lieu of a final exam. Being a docent made me realize how much I had learned along the way:

“It’s a Tulip poplar from Warrenton, Virginia, born in 1891... the design is ‘post-contact’ in that a traditional ‘hog-trough’ has this Western-style pointed prow... we controlled the fire by packing river mud on the parts we didn’t want to burn... Walter Plecker was a state registrar in Virginia in the 1920s who almost single-handedly eradicated Native people from the census rolls by aggressively enforcing the ‘one-drop’ rule ...yes, TJ is a Governor’s magnet school, these high tech kids built a low tech boat...”.

One special visitor was a Native American man with silver hair pulled back in a pony tail and a salt-soaked accent from southern Virginia that I couldn’t quite place. He was interested in our project, but surprised me when I mentioned Walter Plecker. “I wish I’d driven the car that hit him,” the man said. That’s how Plecker died, he told me, sometime in the 40s, and went on to explain how his own brothers had been denied an education past the seventh grade in Virginia due to the application of Jim Crow rules to Indians.

Turns out, I was talking to Mr. Ben Adams, part of a recent delegation that made a splash before the official start of the 400th by traveling across the big pond to Kent, England. Their honorary visit focused international attention on the upcoming observances and the current day status of Virginia’s Indians, creating positive spin for Native people in their continuing efforts to achieve full recognition.

“Funny thing is,” Adams added, “in the end, Plecker helped us. He forced us to know who we are. And we’re stronger today because of it.”

“By the way... what are you going to do with it?”

That was a question we’d been wrestling with. We’d talked about mounting the boat in the school courtyard, even contacted the PTA about turning it into a planter. It didn’t feel right, but what do you do with a 300-pound log canoe?

“Why don’t you give it to me?” Adams proposed. He teaches Indian kids about their culture, and said they would use the boat in the water on a regular basis. “Come on down next fall,” he went on. “You can present it and we’ll do some kind of ceremony.” He left me with his card, and the feeling that once again, this journey had surprised me.

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