I have been proud to be the President of this wonderful school for the past 12 years, and at the end of this year I will pass on the role to a new, capable leader. I'd like to share some thoughts about what I have learned since coming here, first as a student 22 years ago, and later as president.
I had never heard of North Bennet Street School when I came across an exhibition of student and alumni work at the Boston Architectural Center on Newbury Street in 1996. The competence I saw in the work in that exhibition inspired me to leave the career I had always imagined for myself and enroll in the Cabinet & Furniture Making program. I wanted to be that skilled.
As a student, I spent each day focused on the present moment—not the past or the future as I had been trained to do, and I found that time passed without notice. The longer I worked at a task, the longer I felt I could work.
I experienced a growing sense of confidence in myself, and yet the more I learned the more I saw there was to learn. For the first time in my life I went home each day with a sense of accomplishment.
I learned two lessons in my time here that have a great deal of meaning for me, and that I believe are the essential lessons of North Bennet Street School; the lessons that Pauline Agassiz Shaw, the School's founder, understood when she said her aim was to train the "whole person." "Not how to make a living but how to live."
First, I learned that there is both good and bad work, and if you have the skills, it is your choice to do the former or the latter. A joint either fits or it doesn't, a lock either works or it doesn't. The letters of a gold stamped title either align or they don't. It is not ambiguous. The result of your work is plain for everyone to see or hear, and it is impossible to shift the blame for bad work to someone else. That reality instilled in me, in all of us I think, a sense of honesty.
That is the lesson that Matt Crawford described so clearly in his book Shop Class as Soul Craft and in his graduation address to us in 2009. As he said, "Our work forms us and good work is the basis for a good life."
In this age when even basic reality is not agreed upon, and the value of truth itself seems to be in doubt, when people can make false statements and take no responsibility, here at North Bennet Street School we live in a world where you can see the difference between good work and bad work; where our standards, our values, don't change with every situation. Here, reality is plain to see and responsibility is unambiguous.
There is both good and bad work, and if you have the skills, it is your choice to do the former or the latter. A joint either fits or it doesn't, a lock either works or it doesn't. The letters of a gold stamped title either align or they don't. It is not ambiguous.
The second lesson I learned is that mistakes can be good things. They are how you grow. I think you learn more from making a mistake than you do from getting something right the first time. I made plenty of mistakes as a student, and continue to do so, when I have cut the wrong line and ruined whatever I was working on. I had to glue two pieces back together so that no one could see the joint, or root around on the floor for a replacement piece of wood with grain that matched so that no one would notice the repair.
For me, learning the value of my mistakes was important. I could make a mistake, and rather than assess blame or get consumed by self-criticism, I was taught to figure out what went wrong and go about repairing the damage with confidence that I could make it right.
Each year our graduates take the skills learned in their particular trade and go out into the "real" world to make the life for themselves that they imagined. To this year's graduates I say this:
You have extraordinary skills with which to make a living, but the challenge is to lead a life in which you don't stop knowing good work from bad. You approach your mistakes with both humility and confidence, and you leave work each day with a sense of accomplishment. Those are the larger lessons, not of "how to make a living," but "how to live" that I have come to see that North Bennet Street School has been teaching for 137 years.
It is clearly what the world needs more of.
It is clear that the world needs more of you.
This article is part of the Summer 2018 issue of Benchmarks magazine. Read more of Miguel's thoughts on what makes each of our programs unique. You can also see more Benchmarks stories here or download a pdf of the entire issue.