The gray sky threatened snow the entire 2 hour drive north to Clinton County, a drive that was unremarkable until I reached the exit for Loganton. Pennsylvania Route 880 is, simply, farms. One right after the other, occasionally interrupted by a store, a church, some houses, an Amish schoolhouse. The Amish children were playing outside as I drove by and their black clothes stood out starkly against the gray-brown of the fields.
A few miles later: Sugar Valley Rural Charter School (SVRCS). Composed of several buildings, the school currently has more than 280 children enrolled, from kindergarten through Grade 12. Among its many strengths, the school prides itself with its mission to give the students every opportunity to learn by doing. Which is part of the reason why I was there.
Weeks earlier, I received an email from Abigail Schrack, a Social Studies teacher at SVRCS, inviting me to meet their resident Fleece To Shawl team:
“Sugar Valley Rural Charter School is a small school in Loganton, PA. Our students come from a multi-county area, and in the high school we have begun a social studies course centered around fleece to shawl. The students choose to take this class, and it is quite a commitment: learning social studies to meet Pennsylvania State Standards while learning to card a raw fleece, spin the carded wool into yarn, and weave that yarn into a wearable shawl (or practice scarf). This year we have another phenomenal group of students up for the challenge of the competition at the PA Farm Show. Our team is known as the Sugar Valley Shepherds, and our theme this year is all about superheroes. The Shepherds will be donating the proceeds from the shawl auction to the Bixler family, a local father and son who were badly burned in a farm accident.*”
Abby met me soon after I arrived, and I recognized her immediately as one of the many competitors from the last Sheep To Shawl competition I attended (2010). After a quick stop at the classroom, she led me to the building’s back porch and pointed to the field beyond: “Those are our sheep.”
We went back to the classroom to wait for the students to arrive. Looking around the room, the word “typical” was definitely not among the adjectives going through my head. A giant time line of dates and events stretched across the back wall, just above the room-length wooden workbench on which sat six (six!) spinning wheels.
The bookshelves contained typical Social Studies texts, many modern fiction titles, and… yarn.
A couple of looms stood against the wall. One will be used on Friday, January 6th during a school-wide demonstration of the team’s skills, while the other will accompany the team to the Farm Show next week.
The students arrived, I turned my nifty iPod recorder on, and the interview began.
(A few notes about the recording: 1) Yes, I was sitting right next to the recorder; 2) The questions asked came either from me or from Abby; 3) my apologies for the variable volume.)
Superheroes, indeed. It became clear to me that this story was equally about the incredible generosity and selflessness these kids demonstrate, as well as a team interview.
The team’s costumes arrived while I was there:
While we talked, we were joined by Wayne and Francie Appleman, veteran Sheep To Shawl competitors, class mentors… and Abby’s parents. Just as I had recognized Abby, I immediately recognized her parents from years past. As we chatted, the kids quickly set the room up to practice. Three of the six spinning wheels, the loom, and the carder’s seat made a compact square next to the classroom entrance, and as soon as team weaver David M. was ready, they began their time trial – a shortened one, since the actual competition is 3 hours long.
As the students practiced, Wayne and I chatted about the school, when he asked if I had ever spun before. Just a little, I said… on a drop spindle. Then suddenly…
Before I knew it, class had ended, the wheels and the loom were back in their places and the students left for the day. Abby, her parents and I chatted a little while longer, although truth be told I could’ve stood there all evening. The 2 hour drive back to Harrisburg was as uneventful as the drive up to Loganton, and I started to mentally compose this interview for the blog. One thing I know I can’t capture accurately, though, is how lucky these kids are to be able to use their skills to help a family in need… and how lucky the rest of us are to be in their company.
* Click here if you’d like to learn a little more about the Bixler Family.
The Turbotville National Bank currently has a fund set up to collect donations that are used towards the Bixler Family’s medical needs.