I stood there waiting for him to tell me what to do. The assistant foreman had taken me to him and briefly introduced me. Jumbo had nodded and then resumed work. It was my first day in a low-level worker position at the blacksmith and springsmith workshop in Mayors Walk, Pietermaritzburg (South Africa). He just continued undoing the nuts at the end of long bolts threaded through a series of leaf springs, one on top and one at the bottom probably the sheaves of carriage or wagon leaf springs. And I was waiting for him to tell me what to do.
He flicked a glance up at me a couple of times while he was working. While watching him I noticed one unusual feature. He had a thin gold earring in his left ear. After a few minutes I suddenly clicked. I reached down and took the spanner from his hands and completed undoing the nut that he had been working on. He moved off and started to sort the sheaves in various sizes.
I had learned my lesson. I continued the work of undoing the nuts but kept an eagle eye on what he was doing. When I completed undoing all the springs there I moved to assist him with the next operation. I had just learned one of the greatest lessons of my life. I only realised this, in retrospect, a few decades later. I had shifted into a traditional apprentice role in the space of about 15 to 20 minutes.
I never completed a formal apprenticeship but I had been informally inducted into the school. That tradition has largely disappeared of course.
Years later when talking to Jeanne Gamble about her thesis on the last cabinet makers in Knysna she had used the term “silent pedagogy.”
Jumbo had been teaching me. I learned two things immediately. The first was that I had to keep my eyes open. By watching I learned what was expected. The second was that I was not a student being taught but an active participant in a productive process. I immediately become part of the team.
I recall another time I had a similar lesson. I had been shifted around to perform tasks for several others after that first job. Then I returned to Jumbo. He was forging engine stays. Forging in this context is shaping steel not printing bank notes??. He took 50mm bars of steel, heated them up in the furnace and then put them through a progressive set of dies to reshape the ends of the rods.
My job was to grind off the flash that resulted from the forming process. Flash is the tiny bit of steel that forms in the gaps of the die during the final shaping process. The flash has to be ground off flush with the surface of the part.
I was busy grinding off the flash from the engine stays when the boiler room attendant passed by in the walkway next to my machine. Because of the noise and the ear protection we engaged in a bit of non-verbal banter and trading ritual insults with our hands. This meant I took one hand off the stay that I was grinding. As a result it twisted in my hand and the end got gouged by the grindstone.
I received a thunderous “klap” on my shoulder and then staggered and fell across the walkway. I got up and returned to the grinder. Jumbo had returned the stay to the work pile to be redone and then picked up the next stay and was grinding off the flash in the way he had originally shown me. He repeated it with a few more stays and then looked at me, nodded and handed over the next stay to me. He watched me do a few on my own and the returned to forging machine,.
I had been re-taught. The teaching was non-verbal. But I understood the lesson very clearly.
When I got back to university later that year I underwent a totally different teaching process. It set up a dichotomy in my mind which only got resolved 20 years later.