Making hands

I’m late. The bell has just rung, and even though it is a cool February morning, I am sweating. I am sweating from fear of being caught out by myself – alone. I am horrified the students will make fun of me, or worse. Suddenly, I’m back in 8th grade, trying to hide the secret freak show growing under my arms. None of the other girls ever have sweat stains under their arms, certainly not at 8 in the morning.


What a goof I was! I should have made fun of myself in 8th grade. Fortunately, the shrill whistle shakes me back into the present from my insecurity flashback.  Two sets of boys, ‘wards,’ as they’re called here at Camp Erwin Owen, line up two-by-two outside their dormitories. The juvenile correction officers, JCOs, have marched the first set of boys, uniformed in yellow T-shirts and jeans, to the base of the stairs leading to the double-doored school building, ready to file into their classrooms. I have to pass the whole lineup.

I hurry up the steps before the wards, and beeline into the science classroom, where my friend, Katharine Edmonson, is expecting me. Katharine is the science teacher at Camp Owen, but she approaches the subject more like an artist. She rallies her students to do projects, such as creating masks out of papier-mâché, buttons, and feathers or constructing ‘robotic’ hands from cardboard, drinking straws, rubber bands, string, and masking tape. This is what I’m here for. I’m here to observe the Making Hands project in action. I want to see what the wards do for their robo thumbs.

Katharine normally just has them make three-fingered hands, based on instructions she found on the Internet. The “Give Yourself a Hand” project from YES Mag, Canada’s Science Magazine for Kids, requires a 10 cm square piece of cardboard to represent the palm, and three 2 x 9 cm pieces to act as fingers. No thumb involved.

So for my purposes, Katharine modifies the activity. Instead of cutting the cardboard into geometric shapes, the 13 students use their own hands to trace their robo versions on cardboard. 

The deal is, if they can rig their robo hands to pick up a mini Snickers candy bar, they get to eat the candy bar.

“This is the quietest this class has ever been,” Katharine says, as the silence of Snickers-motivated concentration descends on the classroom.

Every now and then, they complain because the safety scissors they are required to use are too small for their hands. These 13 students range from 15 to 17 years old, and they have been court-sentenced and placed here, on 56 acres of mountainous terrain overlooking the Kern River, for various infractions, from drug sales and possession to auto theft. They sit two to a table, facing the front of the class. They come to the front of the room to test their creations, and return to their seats either triumphant and gnawing a Snickers, or dejected and determined to rework their robo-hand so that it lifts the desired bounty.

One kid’s hand, I’ll call him Y, is outstanding, in design, construction, and function. I say, “very clever” and Y says, “Yeah, that’s why I shouldn’t be here. ‘Cause I’m smart.”

In general, the thumb is the last finger the boys work on. I note that R, the first student to finish, makes a thumb that is very low set. If I were reading R’s hand according to International Institute of Hand Analysis procedure, I would say that R has innate capacity for producing results. R is a doer. Will do. Did.

They’re not supposed to talk about what they ‘did’ to be placed in Camp Owen. The threat of pride, and therefore reward, for their crimes undermines the reform process.

Instead: “How long you been here?” asks a newer student.

“Month and a half,” says his tablemate. Neither of them look at one another. They focus on the handiwork in front of them, on their cardboard palms, fingers, and thumbs.

When the class is over, I chat with Katharine for a few minutes. We talk about how well some of the boys did, and how much potential they have, if only they’d channel it wisely. We talk about the snake in the glass terrarium by the window. We talk about skiing over the weekend. I walk out of the building at a leisurely pace. I return my visitor’s badge to the head office.

When I get to my car, I peek through the box of “robo” hands that Katharine has allowed me to keep. Cool, I think. This was a really cool project, and I’m glad I was a part of it. I look again at Y’s hand, and I feel a sense of hope. And I feel as if I have something invested in this kid. I want to be hopeful for him, for all that Y and his cardboard creation represents for the future. As I drive home, I wonder if I’m just being a goof again.


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