As Binford Elementary’s social worker, Terence Lankford spends his days helping students cope with problems like bullying, poor academic performance, and parental abuse. But each weekday for a half-hour, he has a different way of working with kids: He teaches them the ancient art of carving words and pictures into stone.
Lankford stands in the storage room behind the school’s gym that serves as his stone-carving studio. “Everybody goggled up?” he calls.
A 60-year-old with a bushy gray mustache, Lankford supervises the six girls and one boy who are giving up recess period this semester to take his stone carving class. The class is open only to sixth-graders.
In the faded bandana he calls a ‘doo-rag’ that he wears to cover his hair from the stone dust, Lankford looks like the stone carver, watercolorist, and cartoonist that he is. One wouldn’t guess that he’s also a trained psychotherapist.
The students’ first assignment is to carve what Lankford calls “charged words.” What does he mean by that?
“Integrity. Responsibility. The kinds of things that we learned when I was young as being virtues. That aren’t even labeled virtues anymore—they’re called ‘life skills.’ I guess that’s more politically correct. What I’ve learned over the years is you need a direction. What are the important words to you that identify true north for you, so to speak, when you’re looking at your own compass?”
Caroline Tann carves “HOPE” with a hammer and chisel into a slab of beige Indiana limestone. “I think it kinda goes along with what’s going on our economy right now,” she says. “Hope for not as many budgets to get cut and stuff like that.”
Chafin Johnson carves her stone with hearts and the word “LOVE.” She explains, “the border instead of just like a square around it’s a heart, cause I thinks of hearts whenever I hear the word ‘love.’” When she’s finished with the stone, she’ll either display it at home next to the front door or present it to her grandfather.
Putting Their Words To Work
After the students complete their first project, they’re free to carve a design of their own choice—often, they choose the names of friends or family members, which they then give as gifts. One girl carved her grandmother’s initials for a stone that was placed on the woman’s gravesite.
Colton Deckard is carving a sign for a company that he runs with his cousin that shows cows. “It’s going to say ‘TREADWAY DECKARD SHOW CATTLE,’” he says, “with two cows in the middle looking at each other.” For Colton to carve his intricate image of two cows, he’ll need one of Mr. Lankford’s virtue words: PATIENCE. “It’s gonna take a long time. I’m hoping to have it done by middle of the summer.”
The students get their letters and designs by printing them out on a computer and penciling them on the stone. Lankford mostly lets the students work on their own, giving the occasional pointer where needed.
“You being careful there?” he asks Colton. “I want you to trace over your line again before you go any farther.”
Mr. Lankford’s Hole In The Wall Gang
Lankford began carving stone sixteen years ago, to cope with the loss of a job. He had been working at Charter Hospital in Indianapolis, as director of the Impatient Adolescent Psychiatric and alcohol/substance abuse units. Unable to find a new position, he “lost his focus.” A mentor suggested he do what Carl Jung did when was on the outs: chop kindling and carve stone. Starting with scrap stones and screwdrivers sharpened into makeshift chisels, Lankford began carving Celtic designs that had symbolic meaning for him.
“I started searching from there, asking, ‘How do you do this?’”
Lankford got the idea for starting class while meeting with a traumatized student who was doing poorly in school. Noticing the stones with the virtue words displayed in Lankford’s office on window sills and bookcases, the boy asked, “Mr. Lankford, would you carve me one of those?” At first, Lankford turned the boy down. “‘You don’t know what you’re asking,’” he told him. “‘That takes a lot of time, a lot of hours.’ And he asked if I would teach him how to do it.”
Landford started teaching the class in an unused boys’ locker room. He sealed the drains with duct tape and brought in carving tools and a home-made table. The class was later moved to an outside-access area that was so cramped, cold, and dark that the class became known as “Mr. Lankford’s Hole In The Wall Gang.” The storage room that the class now meets in is spacious and well-lit by industrial lamps on floor stands.
Jasmine Conley is carving a stone for her Aunt Hollie. Lankford tells me this is her second attempt. “What did we learn about on this stone?” he asks Jasmine.
“Patience?” she replies.
That’s not the answer Lankford is looking for. “What’s another thing?”
“Gotta concentrate when you do it”? tries Jasmine.
Slowing down his speech to emphasize each word, Lankford reveals the moral he wants her to get. “Checking the spelling before you start carving.”
Jasmine turns her stone over to show me her first attempt: “HOLLY.” “I spelled her name wrong, so I had to start over,” she tells me.
“Oops!” Lankford sympathizes.
A Gasp That Said More Than Words
Lankford knew he was on to a good thing when he heard from the first group of students who had taken the carving class. The students, who were from poor families, had spent a school break shoveling snow to earn extra cash. They surprised Lankford when they told him what they did with the money they earned.
“They said, ‘Mr. Lankford, we made twenty-five bucks.’ I asked, ‘What did you do with it?’ They said, ‘We bought chisels.’”
Among the stones on display in his office, Lankford is proudest of the memorial stone carved by three boys to honor veterans who came to school on World War II Honors Day. He chokes up when he recalls the moment during assembly when the stone was displayed for the first time.
“When we unveiled that on the stage with veterans there was an audible gasp. And that said a lot.”
A Strong Handshake
At 12:30, class ends and the students put down their tools. As Jasmine heads for the door, she offers, to no one in particular, her opinion on the stones she’s carved in class: “I love my rocks!”
In the suddenly quiet room, Lankford takes off his doo-rag and smiles broadly.
“You see why I love this? How many times do you get that level of joy?”
Lankford admits that his students sometimes choose their virtue words based less on a desire for moral uplift than on how easy they are to carve – which could explain why HOPE and JOY are popular. But even if carving virtues in stone doesn’t always build character, it can’t help but build muscle. Indiana limestone weighs 150 pounds per cubic foot, so just working with it makes you stronger. As Lankford jokes, his years of stone carving have given him a strong handshake.