The Paperclip Project

Family Bucket

PDS.logo.academicWhen I first came to Providence Day School in 2009, Mike Boyer (who had previously occupied the desk to which I was assigned) left me a small, white bucket of paperclips. I can’t remember whether this bucket had been handed down to the occupant of this desk over the years or if it was just an ordinary bucket of paperclips, one that Mike finally found an opportunity to get rid of. As with so many things that they don’t want, people seem to be able to say, “Hey, you know who might like this?” and then divest themselves of their crap onto unsuspecting others who now have to decide whether throwing it away would be rude, while the “giver” has vindicated himself of that guilt. It’s kind of a dirty trick. And, it’s how I ended up with this bucket of paperclips.

IMG_1466The bucket was dingy white with a red plastic handle. It was about the size of the bucket of discount ice cream that you might buy when you’ve invited too many kids to one of your children’s birthday parties, and was filled about a half-inch deep with an assortment of different size, mostly metal paperclips. The bucket also contained a desktop flag of Costa Rica and a small cardboard box labeled “’93 Fleer basketball,” inside of which were about one hundred basketball cards. I had no idea why these things were here or what to do with them. So, rather than make any decision, I shoved them into an empty filing drawer.

While designing the paperclip project, my first inclination was to simply grab a handful of paperclips from that very same bucket, which I never seem to have been able to get rid of and that seems to have stayed just as full as it was five and a half years ago. I picked through the hundred or so paperclips in order to find the right ones to hand out, and perhaps to inspire me to see into the future and what my students might do with them. As I sifted through the bucket, however, I realized just how many identical paperclips I had, and that I wouldn’t be able to guarantee that the paperclips my students traded would be the very ones that I had given them. Because I would be pitching the project with Kyle MacDonald’s experiment in mind, I still wanted to begin with a paperclip, but I also needed a little twist.

I had spent so much time formulating guidelines for the processes and content that my students would explore that I put myself in a bit of a bind by not adequately considering their starting point. And because I knew that the paperclip was only ever an excuse for doing good, I hadn’t really thought about the fact that ninth graders aren’t likely to budge for just any excuse. I needed an excuse that was just as mundane, but much more compelling than an ordinary paperclip. I needed my students to feel like I was handing them something that they couldn’t easily find in the bottom of their backpacks. Something special enough to capture both their attention and their imaginations. Something that would matter enough that they wouldn’t just trade it for anything, but not so much that would be afraid to trade it at all.

IMG_1471So, I got thinking about the most interesting paperclips I had ever seen and looked into different paperclip styles and shapes. As I scrolled through pages of paperclips on retail websites like Amazon, Staples, and Target, I saw a wide variety of really cool shaped paperclips for sale—squares, hearts, airplanes, animals, clovers, letters, and more. “What if I went with an interesting shape?” I thought. Then, I wouldn’t have to worry about using something so ubiquitous as a standard “Gem” clip. Of course, I realized very quickly that by purchasing paperclips from such far-reaching retailers, I would have essentially the same problems of easy accessibility and uncertainty that the students would truly begin by trading the very paperclips that I issued. If you could just buy them anywhere, then what’s so special about them, right? Plus, if this experiment was really based on the ideas that economics is not the study of money and that you don’t need money in order to make a long-lasting positive impact on others, then how could I reasonably start off by buying something from a “big box” store or its online equivalent. It was about then that I wrote this question in my notebook: “Can I buy custom paperclips?”

And, it turns out that you can! In fact, some of them are very cool. However, custom paperclips come with significant restrictions for a project of this scale. I needed between twelve and twenty paperclips, and most custom paperclip producers require a minimum order of over fifteen hundred paperclips, which might cost up to one dollar per unit (or more, depending on preparation, packaging, and shipping costs). Not only did this create an issue in terms of cost—I wasn’t about to spend over one thousand dollars on a bunch of paperclips—but it also could put me into a position similar to that held by DeBeers throughout much of the late-19th and most of the 20th century in the global diamond trade. I would essentially have to hold onto a stockpile of paperclips, handing out only a small portion of them to my students, artificially inflating their value by creating a false shortage.

While I might have had the idea in my mind the whole time, it finally became unavoidable: I had to design and create custom paperclips on my own.

In many ways, creating custom paperclips would be more fitting to the project as I had envisioned it, because I was putting myself in a position more like the one that my students would be in. I figured that there were at least three big similarities:

  1. I would not be buying anything or using a medium of exchange.
  2. I had never done anything like this before, and had no idea how to do it.
  3. I had to take a risk in order for anything worthwhile—good, bad, or otherwise—to come out of this.

But I was not without my advantages, not least of which is the fact that my wife is an Art teacher here at Providence Day School. Of course, I would have to approach my wife tactfully, because this was different than just asking for a personal favor, and (as I assume is probably true for most or all Art teachers) she gets requests to do very simple yet time-consuming projects from people who “don’t have a creative bone in their body” or “can’t even draw a straight line” or some other art-deficit cliché all the time. While she’s very polite and professional with our colleagues when declining their requests, because I am her husband, she could say no to me in ways that might…no, definitely would be considered unprofessional if we had a strictly collegial relationship.

Fortunately, I know some of the rules for making this sort of request:

  1. Know what you are asking for before you ask.
  2. Do not assume that the Art teacher cares about what you are doing.
  3. Art materials are neither community property nor in abundant supply.
  4. The Art program is rigorously focused on skill development, critical thinking, problem solving, and meaning making, not your “creative” ideas, decorating, or crafting.
  5. There is neither enough time nor room in the Art curriculum to take on your class project…especially if you want it to happen tomorrow.
  6. The Art teacher may be happy to help you problem solve or point you in the right direction, but should not be asked to create or complete your project for you.
  7. The Art teacher is an excellent collaborator who is open to interdisciplinary partnerships that enhance the experiences within each discipline, which is not to be confused with someone who teaches your classes for you.
  8. Even if you don’t live with the Art teacher, the fact that you will continue to be colleagues should prevent you from making any requests that might damage that relationship.

Before asking my wife for guidance, I looked into how I might go about making custom paperclips, and was able to find a wide variety of instructions on different online DIY and craft sites. There were even Pinterest boards that helped me to see not only what is possible, but gave me some insight into what makes a successful shaped paperclip design. What I realized would create a bit of an obstacle was the fact that I would have to work with wire, and my wife has vowed never to work with wire again. As a graduate student, she was assigned to create a perfectly accurate wire sculpture of a chicken skeleton using one, continuous piece of wire. The experience was so grueling that the sculpture (which she cannot bear to give or throw away) is not allowed to be visible in our house, and now hangs by its neck from the ceiling above her desk at school.


Because I needed to broach the subject with a plan in mind in order to keep my ask as simple, stress-free, and hands-off as possible for my wife, I went through a designing and testing process beforehand. First, I had to make a choice about what I wanted my paperclip to look like. This turned out to be the easy part. I decided to make a school-related shape, and quickly chose to make one of the three Providence Day School logos. The interlocking PD seemed too complicated and the charging horse logo could be indistinguishable from other horses, so I settled on the PDS clock tower logo. Next, I had to figure out how to draw the logo with one continuous line. IMG_1467So, I copied the logo into Microsoft Word, made copies of the image in different possible paperclip sizes, and printed off the document so that I could work through the problem. Then, I broke down the logo into a set of separate lines and tried to see whether it could be drawn without lifting my pen. Finally, after going through a number of unsuccessful attempts, I settled on a design. Now I needed to test the design, which meant that I needed materials, tools, and any clue about how to begin, none of which I had at the time. I was ready to ask my wife for some guidance.

I had been talking with my wife about this paperclip idea for a while, so I felt like the groundwork had been laid well for me to ask for her help. (Rule #9: Don’t ask an Art teacher for anything in the hallways, in passing, or out-of-the-blue. Only ask when you’re invested, committed, and need someone that’s better at solving problems than you are.) I had already spoken with her about the project and the dilemmas that led me to the conclusion that I should fashion an original set of paperclips. She had seen me get frustrated twisting and snapping standard paperclips with my pliers at home on the couch. She knew that I wanted the functionality of paperclips and to appeal to the Providence Day School community. Now I needed to know a couple of things: (1) Am I capable of making these? (2) What materials and tools should I use, and where should I get them? Without belaboring the process, the conversation went well, and my wife pointed me to a cabinet containing an assortment of metal wire, needle-nose pliers, and wire cutters.

“How much do you think you’ll need?” she asked.

“I don’t really know. What do you think?” I said.

“Why don’t you just take what you think might work, and bring back whatever you don’t use?” she said. So, I looked through the cabinet and pulled out a three-inch wide spool of wire that seemed to have about the right thickness, a loosely looped length of equally thick, but much stiffer wire, a pair of needle-nose pliers, and a pair of wire cutters. “How long will you need these for? I’m not sure what Chris [the Art Department Chair] has coming up in 3-D Design, but he’s wrapping up a project next week, then starting a new one the following week, so you can’t keep them for too long.”

“Well, I’m launching the project next Friday, so I’ll have to have this all back to you before then.”

“Great,” she said. “You’re not going to use all of that, are you?”

“I wasn’t planning on it, but if I use too much, I’ll go to Michael’s or Home Depot and replace it. Is that okay?”


“Thank you so much,” I said. “You’re the best.”

“No problem. Good luck.”

Now I had all of the tools and materials that I needed (at least, I hoped so), a design, and my wife’s assistance. I was feeling pretty good, but still nervous about whether I would be able to actually create a paperclip that could do what I intended it to do. So, I began testing out my design using the spooled wire, which was surprisingly pliable. After making only a few bends and twists, I realized that my design was far too angular. It turns out that wire (if it’s thick enough to make a paperclip) doesn’t really bend at sharp angles, but needs to be curved at arcs of varying lengths and degrees as needed by your design. And, anyone who is more mathematically or spatially inclined than I am could tell you that, even if theirs arcs are similar, the length of the outer edge of each arc will be longer than the inner edge. I hadn’t accounted for either of these two facts in my initial line drawings, so I needed to reconsider my design while holding true to my original intentions.


After a while, I figured out a new design that seemed to work on paper, but that I doubted in terms of its appeal and functionality. Now shorter of time than I had believed I would be, I just had to try it. I also wanted to be responsible with the supplies that I had taken from the Art Department, so I ran my tests on the same pliable wire that I used on the first prototype. The fact that the softer, more pliable wire snapped pretty easily upon being manipulated again told me that it wasn’t likely to function very well as a paperclip, which meant that I was down to only one type of wire that I had to make work. And I had to do it soon, because I was only about eight days away from my planned launch.

IMG_1470 IMG_1472 IMG_1475

In my first attempt with the firmer wire, I learned that I was working from the wrong end of my design—working from the outside-in rather than the inside-out. But after that first rough one, the next was relatively easy (thank you wife and DIY sites). Over the course of the next week, I managed to twist together a dozen Providence Day School logo paperclips and, in order to give them that little something extra, I decided to attach them to a cardstock backing and to label them in such a way as to make them appear more desirable.

Of course, I didn’t have any cardstock and I didn’t want to abuse the generosity of the Art Department and/or my wife (Rule #10: “Yes” today does not imply “yes” tomorrow), so I went to ask at the Copy Center, which is conveniently located on the way to my classroom. Because Hal, the most responsive and efficient copy guy I’ve ever seen, wasn’t in (and I had left my two kids just outside the door), I quickly rationalized helping myself to two sheets each of red and white cardstock. Now, if you know me, you know that this sort of ethical transgression will eat away at me, regardless of any assisted rationalization or even forgiveness. When my great-grandparents (a Lithuanian Jew and an Irish Catholic) had children, they created a new strand of DNA that is made out of pure guilt. So, I added just another link to the chains that I’ll be dragging around in the afterlife.

IMG_1476 IMG_1477For the rest of that day (Thursday before Friday’s launch), I used each planning period and spare moment to measure, cut, and glue the cardstock (a 2.5 inch red square over a 2.5 x 3.5 inch white rectangle). Then, I wrote “PROVIDENCE DAY SCHOOL” at the top of the backing, in the half-inch section of white cardstock that I had left exposed and “Limited Edition Logo Paperclip” in the bottom half-inch of exposed white cardstock. Originally, I had planned to clip the paperclips onto the cardstock, but I worried that they would get stretched out and lose some of their functionality. Then, I got the idea to use twist ties to attach the paperclips to the backing, but when I tried it out at home that evening, the twist ties were difficult to work with, the paper part posed problems, and they looked unappealing. Finally, after putting the kids to bed that evening, I decided to tie the clips to the backing using needle and thread. At long last, I had what I needed for the launch.

When I look back to handing over the paperclips and launching this project, I was afraid that my students would disappoint me. Those paperclips (as much as they were made from very inexpensive…secretively borrowed or stolen…materials) had cost me something real and priceless—time with my family. As meaningless as the paperclips may be, they represented choices that I had made to invest in this student experiment rather than doing whatever my wife and children asked me to do instead. I had imposed upon my wife’s good graces, and focused my attention on this project rather than playing with or hugging my family as often as I probably should have. Pliers and wire, paper and glue, needle and thread are not particularly hard to come by. But, as much as I might downplay the value of the paperclips themselves, they represent a significant emotional and relational investment for me, my wife, and my kids. I had a lot riding on this.

When I first came to Providence Day School in 2009, I didn’t come alone. I came with my then nearly two year-old daughter and my wife, who was six months pregnant with our son. We arrive at school each morning around 7:15 and we bring school home with us every evening. It’s sometimes hard to tell where the line exists between family and school, or whether that line exists at all. I don’t know whether I am ignoring my family by investing in school or I am investing in my family’s future by working to make our school a better place. It’s a constant internal struggle for me. Unlike Mike Boyer, I am unwilling to pass off my decision making on others in a way that vindicates me of my guilt. My family is not a paperclip.



One thought on “Family Bucket

  1. Pingback: When in Doubt… | jessedowns

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