Teenagers and knitting are not necessarily two things one might expect to go hand-in-hand, but they have come together nicely for the past several years at Saline Alternative High School under the capable guidance of longtime city resident and avid knitter Joan Kelley.
Over the course of the school year, Kelley teaches alternative high students to knit tiny wool hats that are then donated to the maternity ward at a local hospital to be worn by newborns when they are dressed for the first time.
It was a matter of chance that Kelley became involved in such work during her retirement years, having been tipped off about the opportunity to share her yarn-based talent with a group of often overlooked young people.
“I have a friend at the senior center and she had a daughter who was teaching there at that time five years ago,” she said. “They were looking to do an experiment between young people, students at the school, and the elderly in the community and see if they could blend some generations together.”
The thought amongst administration, according to Kelley, was to help alternative education students become lifelong, active members of the place in which they live.
“Through service learning, these students give back to the community,” she said, indicating they participate in many aspects of local life, such as volunteering for Food Gatherers, Habitat for Humanity and at the Evangelical home.
Kelley and another woman had already been making hats for newborns for several years, so teaching the craft to students seemed like a natural fit.
“I have a friend and she and I have been making hats for eight to 10 years, starting out going to St. Joe’s hospital and now at the University of Michigan, so the student hats go in with the hats that we make,” she said. “The students last year made 56, which is huge because that was just from December to June, and these are kids who can’t tie a slip knot. These are kids who, most of them, have never knitted before and have no idea of the terminology.”
Teaching a more traditional art form has its challenges, Kelley said, and knitting is often tough for contemporary youngsters to pick up right away.
“They don’t have that particular skill set because today’s generation is all about instant video things, like phones and tablets and computers, so this is a very old skill, so it takes a lot of patience,” she said. “You start out down at the bottom with a stitch called casting on, which is learning to use your hands, and then just build up to the top and the you have to seam it.”
Then, it is just a matter of the finishing touch: a pom pom.
Kelley said most of the hats end up in the maternity ward, but even those stitched a bit too large or too small are still put to good use.
“Some of the kids knit really, really tight (which makes for a smaller hat) and it goes to the preemies, and then occasionally there will be a kid who puts a lot of extra stitches in and they’ll make a hat like this (fairly large) and it will go to the cancer ward because those kids need to keep their heads warm,” she said. “Every hat that’s made finds a home.”
Though the first couple of days of knitting instruction can be difficult, Kelley said, the students who endure through the initial challenges are often going strong on their first hat by the end of the inaugural week.
“I started out working five days and that was too much for me at this age,” she said, “so now I go Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, and if they can get through Wednesday and Thursday they’re knitting on Friday.”
Kelley said the classroom knitting becomes a family affair, with teachers, social workers and anyone else who happens to be in attendance getting in on the action.
“Occasionally, I’ll have students that I’ve had in previous years come back and they’re very helpful,” she said.
The optimal amount of students per class is about eight, Kelley said, although she has taught up to 18 at the same time.
Regardless of whether students end up sticking with knitting in the long term is really secondary, Kelley said, to the life lessons the practice instills.
“Not everyone’s a knitter and in life you’re not always going to like your boss, so it teaches them to persevere through something that they don’t particularly like,” she said. “It is also very relaxing to some students who go home and talk their parents into knitting needles and more to make a scarf”
Also, in the age of screens galore, learning to knit can literally be and eye-opening experience.
“It teaches them conversation skills, because we sit around a great big table instead of at a desk,” she said. “So, I’m looking at you and I can look at you across the table and we can encourage one another.”
This is good for alternative high kids, Kelley said, because of the personal nature of each of their educational plans.
“I think it was two years ago we were talking and discovered that because the school is so focused on individuals, they have their programs and the nature of the school is written for them since we want them to graduate, that they may not even know the name of the person sitting next to them. They’re on computers and they’re very focused on what they’re doing,” she said. “So it’s an opportunity to build friendships that we didn’t know were missing at the school.”
Kelley is nothing but complementary when speaking of alternative high school Principal Carol Melcher, as well as rest of the faculty.
“That staff there, there are four teachers, are just the most outstanding human beings to, daily, be in the trenches with these kids,” she said. “They have their good days and bad days.”
Since this was the first time Kelley took on any sort of professional education role, she said it has benefited her as much as the students.
“I am not a teacher; I worked in business, and I have no college education for working with young people, so it’s been an amazing ride and I’ve enjoyed it,” she said. “The community needs to know how good these kids are and that they have good hearts and good potential. It just needs to be captured and channeled and encourage.”
The bonds Kelley builds with students do not end in the classroom, she said, and last for years to come.
“When I see kids on the street after graduation they’ll come up to me and say, ‘Mrs. Kelley, I’m making a scarf, or Mrs. Kelley I just loved being in your knitting class,’” she said. “And they’ll do it right in public if I happen to walk down the street and that’s not a teen thing (to do) in my mind.”
A few former students have even benefited from the program while having children of their own.
“We’ve had some students who have had children and we’ve given hats to those students, so then we’ve seen some pictures back of the baby wearing the hat,” she said.