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We make history with hands-on learning

It was easy. A cinch. That's why it took me three weeks to produce.

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I made a full-size bed for Queen Nefertiti. It was the final project for the fifth-grade Egypt unit. The good Queen N. was the wife of King Amenhotep back in the 14th century BC, dates I had to look up just now, though I remember my bed project vividly, without research.

Which is the point. For a suburban American kid, circa AD 1960, this was a great way to learn ancient history: inhabit it, if only by constructing Nefertiti's bed down in the basement.

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For three weeks in the autumn of my fifth-grade year, I got off the school bus each afternoon and made a beeline for Dad's basement workbench. There, I fashioned my replica of the exquisite and quite uncomfortable bed I had admired in the Egyptian wing of the Museum of Fine Arts on a class field trip.

Like the real thing, my bed would be gilded; it would have the woven-fiber suspended "mattress" and the same awkward neck "pedestal." While my classmates were making shoe-box sarcophagi, paper-towel papyrus, and sugar-cube sphinxes, my imagination was fired by the engineering of the Queen's bed. I insisted on full-scale, as sculptural and uncomfortable as the real thing. Gilded. Impressive.

The project suited my building skills and the materials available to be scrounged from the basement. A few feet of wooden closet rod would never be missed, nor the gold spray paint left over from Christmas, nor that big ball of Egyptian-looking twine. I struggled with Dad's miter box to make authentic corners, drilled hundreds of 1/8th-inch holes in strict alignment, and carved a block of balsa wood into that silly, neck-craning pedestal. It was easy. A cinch. That's why it took me three weeks to produce.

Though I could make corners that held together at 90 degrees, I could not make four corners articulated in the same plane. The bed was canted. I also found it difficult to drill hundreds of straight, matching holes that did not encroach on one another. And weaving hundreds of feet of twine, warp and weft, took a tedious eternity. But spray-painting was fun and easy and left interesting patterns on Dad's workbench and tools.

I persevered. Were the finished product extant today, it would certainly fool any of the appraisers on "Antiques Roadshow." Flaws are merely proofs of antiquity or inept latter-day restorers. The bed went into the fifth-grade Egyptian "museum" at school and amazed and delighted throngs of doting parents, including mine.

I do not recall my grade on the project - which is another point. I remain suffused with pride in my work, since it had allowed me to "visit" ancient Egypt and explore long-lost form, function, and craftsmanship firsthand.

In sixth grade, I made a scale model of Daniel Boone's cabin for the Colonial America unit. This time I worked from my imagination and literature, rather than a real artifact. A wooden apple crate was the building's rough enclosure. Rocks from our driveway and lots of patience and Elmer's Glue (Curator's note: The hot-glue gun had not yet been invented) yielded a realistic hearth and chimney, complete with paper-clip andirons, hob, and roasting spit.

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I made "authentic Colonial furniture" - dining table, ladder-back chairs, four-poster beds - with wooden matches and popsicle sticks, painstakingly holding each glued joint while blowing on the slow-drying blobs of Elmer's. I made wall sconces out of tin foil. Q-Tips make an excellent candle, I found. I was most proud of the braided rug: watercolor paints on felt. My Daniel Boone lived in style.

As a fifth- or sixth-grader, I took these classroom projects at face value. We were recreating artifacts of past civilizations. But I have come to think of these school projects as artifacts of the present as well. Which means that my fifth- and sixth-grade projects were as much about me as about the ancient epoch. A fifth-grade sugar-cube pyramid is about ancient Egypt and about the particular fifth-grader heading for the basement with the Elmer's Glue and sugar cubes.

Which is why I remember Nefertiti's bed so vividly: I liked the way the project made me feel about learning. The bed project and Boone's cabin were an encapsulation of myself as a fifth-grader: my sense of style, of manual dexterity, of value and priority ... my sense of how to discover and retrieve ancient artifacts.

Tonight, as I gave technical advice to my youngest daughter, Ariel, making her boxed 3-D reproduction of "The Smuggler's Treasure," I wondered at what future recollections we might be fashioning for her. Our family archives brim with such projects, reminders of wonderful discoveries and learning: Hilary's "Black Beauty" diorama; Spencer's medieval catapult report (a wooden model complete with rubber-band-powered boulder-launching arm). Might my reproduction Shaker bench from last Christmas count as a "report" or "project?" Do the artifacts of hands-on learning ever end?

When one ventures into the realm of ancient civilizations, one is also venturing into the realm of fabled explorers of ancient civilizations, like British Egyptologist Howard Carter or the fictional Indiana Jones. The exploit of uncovering the great artifacts becomes part of the experience.

In the case of Daniel Boone, we live within several generations of the authentic inhabitant of my apple-crate project, still within the shadow and lineage of the legend and lore of the epoch. Part of the lore of my own learning are these vivid recollections of an ancient epoch I was privileged to inhabit: fifth and sixth grade, 1960s-style.

I was "Howard Carter" then, and I am "Howard Carter" now, dusting the sand off artifacts of my schooling, retrieving the feeling and value of once and future ancient epochs.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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