When I was eight years old, my grandfather told me that if I really wanted to know the story of a person, all I had to do was examine that person’s hands - the story would unfold in their texture, depth, and color. I know I was eight years old when I heard this bit of wisdom because it was also the year when I was told who Mr. Albright really was.
In addition to a small farm, my parents ran a dog-boarding kennel, and Mr. Albright, living in Woodstock at the time, boarded his two Corgies with us frequently. For a while, I simply knew him as the nice old man who made my mind wonder with stories of the places he visited while his dogs stayed in our kennel.
One day, Mr. Albright and his wife, Josephine, pulled into our driveway, and I ran down to greet them and take their dogs. When Mr. Albright opened the back of his station wagon to let the dogs out, I caught a glimpse of something tucked behind the crates; it was wrapped in a white cloth and speckled with paint, and looked like the belly of Brook Trout. I asked him what it was, so he shuffled to the side of the car, opened the door, folded the cloth back and withdrew a painting of fairly good size. I stared. I had never seen anything like that in my short life; it was so weird but also beautiful and dreamy. It was a painting of an old man, seated and wearing a red hat, his hands resting in his lap.
“Where did ya get that?”
“I painted it. It is called The Vermonter.”
“How long did it take ya to paint all that?”
“Years. About as long as you’ve been alive.”
“Wow, really? Why did it take so long?”
“The hands. The hands took that long. They tell the story.”
After Mr. Albright’s dogs were put in the kennel and I went back inside to get some lunch, my mother, who had been watching the unlikely conversation from the dining room window said, “Dougie, make sure you remember what just happened. Ivan is a very famous painter and you just got the treat of a lifetime.” I did remember but did not fully realize until later in my life just how big a ‘treat’ that experience was. What I did realize at that moment, however, in the chance meeting of my grandfather’s words and Mr. Albright’s painting, was that a truth was created: hands do tell a person’s story.
It was this experience with Mr. Albright and the truth created from it that has been the biggest influence in shaping my thinking about myself as an educator. Simply put, my job is to provide opportunities for students that allow them to create their own stories, opportunities focused on activity.
Sure, learning can take place without activity, but what is learned is theory, not knowledge. Knowledge contains an intimacy that theory lacks and knowledge, as I have come to discover, is what creates stories.
Mr. Albright’s painting was appropriately titled. The hands that took him eight years to create told the story of every old-school Vermonter I knew then and have known since: Albert Atwood, Otis Wilson, Henry Koloski, Stash Koloski, and ironically, my grandfather. To this day, I cannot look at that painting and not think of those men, men who had an intimate knowledge of hard work, honor, patience, and nature’s way - qualities I pray show themselves in the stories my students’ hands will tell.