Let's give a hand to the hands-on people this industry relies on.

There's a special kind of guy who comes into a classroom and heads right for the back row. Our industry is full of them. No matter how many other seats there are, he's going for the back row. If the back row's full, he'll grab a chair and drag it to the back row. I fondly call these folks “The Back Row Boys.” Whether anyone knows it, they're one smart bunch.

I first got to know the Back Row Boys when I taught college industrial technology. The next easiest thing to major in after phys ed was supposed to be industrial arts, otherwise known as shop, so there they were in the back row of my class.

My only knowledge of the back row was from the front. In elementary school, the boys in the back had their hands on everything. We girls found them intolerable. If there was something to touch, they touched, regardless of constant warnings to “Keep your hands to yourself.” Probably because they were constantly touching everything, their hands were unbearably dirty. Why couldn't they just stop that, we front row students - and the teacher - wondered.

On into high school, the Back Row Boys were:

    Dirty, especially greasy hands and muddy boots.
    Suspected of making nasty comments and snickering among themselves.
    Jabbing and poking each other when awake.

Left Alone

Not much is expected of the Back Row Boys. But as the teacher, I learned fast that the Back Row Boys do have expectations of school. The big one is that they get left alone. So long as they're reasonably quiet back there, they get to do what they want. What they want to do is to be left alone. They don't have much use for the stuff that happens in classrooms. That's for the smart kids and the teacher in the front of the room. The Back Row Boys are in class for the duration, and not for much else.

The problem with my industrial technology class was that there was no one in the front of the room except the teacher. From the front, there was me, then six rows of empty seats, and then two exceptionally tight rows of Back Row Boys all crammed as tightly as possible against the gray cinderblock back wall. The ones who got there first got to tip their chairs back against the wall, angle their John Deere hats down over their eyes, prop their muddy boots up on the student desks and settle in for the duration.

Since there was no one else in the front of the room, I went to the back. Chairs thudded to the floor. Mud popped off boots as feet came down off the desks. Hat bills popped up. “What're you doing back here?” cried the alarmed expressions of the Back Row Boys. It felt like I'd walked into the men's restroom.

“There's no one up there,” I said. “So I guess we're going to have class back here. I've never been in the back of the room. What goes on back here?”

A few grumbled, “Nuthin'.”

Nuthin' was what they expected, and nuthin' was what they expected teachers to expect of them. They never had been and never would be good at school stuff - reading, writing, spelling, math.


Revelation time. When I moved in with the Back Row Boys, I learned why they can't stop the hands stuff. Hands-on is how they think.

It's known that different people learn best through different senses. Many learn mostly by seeing. Some learn best by hearing. A few learn by touching and doing.

Think what it would do to “normal” seeing and listening students if they aren't allowed to use their eyes and ears in class. It seems that something similar happens to the Back Row Boys when they can't use their hands to learn.

When the Back Row Boys got into the shop, they changed. Their hands knew what to do without being told by either the teacher or by the brain of the person they were attached to.

Here's what I learned about the Back Row Boys in the shop: They think with their hands. They begin by feeling the project, or by reaching for a tool, thus looking like they're not thinking. They may not talk while they're thinking, thus looking like they're not thinking. They may not explain the conclusion they reached, thus looking like they're not thinking. They may pay a lot more attention to things than to people, so other people don't know what they're thinking, if at all.

As a society and as individuals, we have a bias that the Back Row Boys aren't very smart. They're often not especially talented in reading and writing. But they're often brilliant in that hands-on stuff, that fix-it stuff, and that “don't make me read about it, just let me get my hands on it” stuff. These folks are what our industry is made of.

Fortunately, the people who study intelligence (as in gifted and talented children) are not biased against the hands-on folks. Analysts of smart people recognize seven different types of intelligence:

  • Linguistic: writing, reading, telling stories.

  • Logical-mathematical: interested in patterns, arithmetic problems, strategy games, experiments.

  • Bodily-kinesthetic: gain knowledge through bodily sensations. Often athletic, good at crafts such as woodworking.

  • Spatial: think in images and pictures; like mazes and puzzles.

  • Musical: often singing or drumming to themselves; aware of sounds that others miss.

  • Interpersonal: good at communicating with others; seem to understand others' feelings and motives.

  • Intrapersonal: often shy; aware of their own feelings; self-motivated.
It's said that it's rare for a person to have high intelligence in all areas. Someone especially high in one area will most likely be quite unremarkable in other areas.

I've come to believe that the sign of a good mechanic is the hands. If a person starts out by reaching for a tool or by touching the components, my bet is that this is a good thinker. If he stands back and just looks, I'll bet his knowing nod is a fake. If he asks for the instructions, I figure it's a lost cause.

There are at least a couple problems with the fact that the Back Row Boys often represent our industry.

The general public (our customers) may have the same assumptions about the Back Row Boys as I had before I joined the back row, so the public may not be all that confident that one can fix his problem. The Back Row Boys often don't communicate verbally all that well. That means they may prefer not to communicate with the customer.

We in the industry tend to undervalue our Back Row Boys. That means it may show that we don't think they're all that smart. We probably get what we expect, rather than what they really can do. And we don't invest as much as we could or should in their development.

The plumbing and heating business is full of Back Row Boys. Maybe you are one. If not, you most certainly work with one. Let's give you, your employees and our industry credit for being really, really smart. Hands-on!