NWK believes you can see things in a child that give you clues as to their creative strengths. Here is one story—of my little brother!
Since he was a little boy, Rock Ridgeway was interested in two things: making shapes and contributing to a better world. As he grew older these two interests converged and defined the path for his life’s work—creating inventions to improve the lives of people without damaging the environment.
His interest in shapes emerged first as he created structures from building blocks. His favorite materials as a preschooler were huge wooden dominos. Eight year older, I showed him origami and soon he surpassed me in the forms he could create. I also introduced him to topology, an area of mathematics that deals with insides and outsides. We made Mobius strips, loops of paper with a twist that have no clear inside and outside; “magic” wallets, that make money seem to move around; and a regular playing card cut so that you could wiggle through it. Once we cut a piece of paper so that it stretched into a chain link fence that stretched almost a block.
When Rock was 10 or so, his social conscience also began to grow. He expressed many of his ideas through writing, directing, and starring in a comedy, “The Hysterical, Historical Soldier,” presented in a tiny theater through a creative arts program at the local university. The main idea of his play concerned the price future generations will pay if we don’t care for the Earth (and each other) today. Because of his shape interest he also created a new form of rearrange-able, modular sets for his production. (The photo is of him as Emperor of the World with no one left to rule!)
In high school, Rock searched for math or science classes that extended his interests. However, he got off to a bad start with his solid geometry teacher. He asked if what they were learning in class had any practical application, or if they were just playing around with shapes and numbers. The teacher thought Rock was being sarcastic, but actually he was quite seriously interested in an answer.
Because our family had no money for college, after high school Rock began a backpacking business. One summer while hiking in Colorado and carrying a 75 pound-pack on his back, he saw a squirrel—existing on what was found in nature. Inspired, he began to reflect:
“I began to ponder ways that I could lighten my load. A mental inventory brought me to the realization that I was carrying a pack, poncho, tent, parka, and sleeping bag all made of nylon. It seemed to me that a single, more efficient shape could fulfill all the functions served by that gear with less bulk and weight.”
He sold his business and began to invent. To survive, for three years he worked as a janitor at a television station and lived on a small piece of his grandfather’s farm in Belfalls, Texas. Through countless trial and error experiments, he drew designs, sewed prototypes, and tried them out in different environments.
As he worked, he began to consider how his designs could also contribute to his world. He wanted his designs not only to do more with less—but to be ecologically and economically sound. Remembering the inspiration of the squirrel, Rock began to look more closely at natural structures. He saw patterns from nature as ideal models for effective inventions. He looked at everything—from the way atoms join to make molecules to the structure of crystals. He noticed similar patterns in diverse structures, such as how the hexagons on some turtle shells resemble a cluster of soap bubbles. He began to build on many of the ideas begun by Buckminster Fuller.
Rock’s inventions are always affordable, even to people with limited means, and they are kind to the environment. He has not only been able to follow his interests and dreams begun by playing with blocks and origami in childhood; he is also helping to shape a better world.
As teachers and parents, I challenge us to seek out the strengths of our children, strive to feed those young minds and build the confidence and resilience that comes from knowing who you are.