Obtaining higher education is one of the biggest pressures for today’s young adults. In a society where it’s not only greatly valued, but also kind of mandatory-feeling, jumping into university straight after the completion of high school is something that many of us do, without much thought as to what the next four years of our lives will be like. After entering university, even if you don’t find purpose within the institute, it can feel like you have to stay, because in our culture, there is negative stigma around THE DROPOUT. But what if you and university just don’t mesh? Can there still be hope for you? There is for Maggie Gray, a taco-loving, woodworking, sewing machine, who is known to light up any room. Although we don’t see each other much anymore, I caught up with her for some casual 101 (cyber) time, to discuss her decision to become a DROPOUT and what she traded university in for.
Let’s get right into it. Why did you decide to leave university?
I don’t know, (laughs), I guess I powered through first year because I thought residence itself was the awful part and that’s what made it feel claustrophobic, like there was kind of nothing more to it, but then once we were in second year, and once we moved into that shitty house at 228 University Ave, I came to realize that the entire atmosphere wasn’t for me.
That was a shitty house. Did your decision to dropout have anything to do with the actual learning process?
It definitely had something to do with the learning process. I didn’t come to the realization, until recently, of how much better I learn by doing hands-on activities. The thing that stumped me about university was that I could get by doing so little (e.g. just writing a paper for the class and doing the final exam), that I was unmotivated to take full advantage of the classes. I never became overly interested in course content. I just couldn’t get past the fact that I was throwing away thousands of dollars to learn less than I did just by picking up Macleans. I know that I can benefit from that learning style, and I know that I will at some point, but as a 20 year old who had no idea what she was even going to do with an undergrad, let alone what her major was going to be, I felt no point in carrying on with it at that moment.
Do you think that university caters to a certain type of person? Are you not that person?
I do think that university caters to a certain type of person, or rather, every university caters to different types of people. Queen’s 100% was not for me. If you know exactly what you want to be when you grow up, and that whatever you want to be requires formal education of some sort, then yes, university is the place for you. You’ll get all the book smarts you could possibly want and then you’ll be qualified to do whatever it is you wanted to do.
So university is kind of a means to and end? If you know you want to be a lawyer, university is just a natural stepping stone in achieving that. Did you get a job as soon as you left school?
No absolutely not. I didn’t even work for like 8 months; no one would hire me, and I was secretly just not applying to a lot of places that I told my parents I was applying to (laughs).
Do you think it’s important to have a little bit of time off after school before rushing into a job?
Totally. I needed that time to regroup and actually get back to doing the things that I loved. In that summer off, I did so much craft work and gardening, which I was never able to do at school, so it was important to touch down with myself. I can’t even imagine getting a job in that first few months. I’m not surprised that no one wanted to hire me. I was such a weird, like, Kingston dust bunny. I was not myself, so it was nice to be able to get back into the swing of things.
But you do have a job now. You work at a winery.
Yes, I work at a winery, a local winery, full time. I work retail through the week and I’m a kitchen manager on the weekends. My little hometown, and other neighbouring ones, are going through a state of exponential development right now because of the success of the local wineries, so it’s pretty incredible to not only see that from a business perspective at work, but to see how it has benefited everyone else. For instance, because of the tourists that come to this area now, my sister’s best friend and her husband have a bike rental/tour business. How rad is that? Nearly every day they’re going to a few wineries, with couples or groups from out of town, and they’re all tasting wine together, laughing and riding bikes. That’s awesome.
That sounds lovely, a perfect example of a business venture that wouldn’t necessarily require a degree. Some people would say that you’re not going to get a job if you don’t finish your degree. To them, you’d say: fact or faux?
Well, it depends what kind of job you’re looking for. When I reevaluated everything it became clear that, while I do see myself eventually finishing my undergrad, or graduating with a college diploma or something, I don’t want the kind of job that you need to have a certain education for. That’s not what I see myself doing. I see myself doing something where I need a lot of experience, where people give me the opportunity to learn, whether that be apprenticing under them or whatever.
And even at the winery you’ve been promoted.
Yeah, even that. I’ve only been working there for like 7 months. As long as you keep a school mindset all the time, so you’re constantly absorbing things from everyone you interact with, you can learn just as much, just living in real life. And I’m happy. I have money to spend on the weekends if I want to do something with my friends. Through the week, I’m learning things all the time.
Yeah, there are all kinds of different ways to learn; having a job is one of them. Have you found any other outlets for learning, outside of the classroom, since dropping out?
I’m taking a cake decorating course in a couple weeks? I have become more conscious of the intelligence around me on a daily basis, though, since leaving school. I spend most of my days at work picking the winemaker’s brain on crop development, fermentation, production, and when he’s not around I absorb as much business sense from the owners, who also own two other very successful businesses. I now take the time to listen to my dad’s rants about new policies, whether in the healthcare field or more locally. I guess what I’m trying to say is that not being in school has made me appreciate the wealth of knowledge that I can gather from people who I interact with each and every day.
You said that once you left school, you got back to doing the things you loved. Where do you live now and how do you think location affects your ability to do the things that you love?
I currently live in Harrow. For me, it seems as though I need to be in the country, or at least have a vehicle, so I can get away. Having a car means having the option to go to a fabric store that’s like an hour away. I’m happiest when I can be doing things with my hands or what have you. I like to be able to get out of the city. You’re the same way, you grew up in the country. That’s where I feel safest and happiest, when I can actually be outside, and not in a park; it’s not the same.
I know you live on your parent’s farm right now. What are some other perks of being back in the country?
I have a kitchen and a wood shop, and right now I’m just taking advantage of the things that my parents already have, that they don’t mind me using.
It sounds like it’s kind of helping fuel creativity. I know you’re a creative person, you make a lot of things. What kinds of things have you made in the past?
I guess I probably started out mostly just with knitting and sewing because my grandmother and my mother were big into that . Scarves, mittens, socks, etc. Lately I’ve gotten into woodworking. My dad was always big into woodworking and actually built a lot of the furniture in our house. That was always kind of a nice inspiration to be around. As of late I’ve been carving spoons, which is really hard on the thumbs, actually. I garden a lot; I grow seasonal vegetables. All the typical things you think a country girl would do, I have somehow done.
Yeah, you’re always talking about woodworking! How long does it take to make something like a spoon?
Spoons really vary! It’s totally dependent on what kind of wood you choose. The first spoon I ever carved was black walnut (really tough) and that took me probably four hours start to finish. I had blisters all over my hands for weeks (laughs). Since then, I can carve a spoon out of an equal wood density (e.g. mahogany) in about two hours. Something really soft, like pine, probably only takes an hour or so.
So, you could potentially be making tons of spoons each week? There’s an awesome platform for people to showcase their craft online; would you consider selling your stuff over the web?
At this point I wouldn’t consider selling my stuff on the web just because I’m not totally satisfied with my skill level. Maybe sometime in the future when I have more experience exploring different realms.
You have a friend overseas who’s pursuing acting and you have another friend who makes really incredible art. Would you say you surround yourself with creative people?
Yeah, absolutely, and although all of my friends are so different in all their ways, so many of them have a creative avenue. I can’t directly relate to it – like with Sarah, I can’t draw or paint – but I truly appreciate how talented she is, and the same with Ellie, an actress; I can’t even imagine doing that, but it’s incredible to be hearing their stories and to see people you grew up with dropping out of school and finally finding their way. It’s amazing to see that transformation and to see a happy ending.
And you already mentioned that you consider your dad to be someone who inspired you to take up woodworking, but I also know that your brother is into it. Did his involvement help push you to get involved?
My dad was always really into it, and it was his passion before he got lost in his job; he doesn’t really have time for it anymore, but he always loved doing it, so he developed such an extensive tool and machine collection and that’s what made me think to take advantage of it, especially since that has been very therapeutic for my brother. It’s absolutely therapeutic for me, too. You start with something raw, and you end up with this finished product that other people might actually want and use.
So when it comes to woodworking, it seems like your influences are strictly male. Do you think that woodworking is gendered or considered to be a “man’s activity”?
I absolutely think that woodworking is gendered. I have never experienced that for myself, since my dad always treated me like a son, so I would have never noticed any gender roles, anyway, but for the most part, yes. I do think times are changing, as they are with most career paths (grrl power), and I do hope that continues and that more girls explore avenues such as woodworking, because it is so rewarding.
Do you have any projects on the go right now?
Well, I’m working on a couple of different things. I’ve made cutting boards in the past and I’m currently brainstorming new and better ideas for how to make them. I want to build a butchers block table and do more larger scale pieces, to implement all of the little things I’ve learned. Instead of just doing a lathe project, I can do lathe legs on something else. I can start moulding things together, and it’s nice now especially because I understand all of the different machines, so it’s no longer my brother always showing me what to do. It’s nice to have worked from scratch, to where I am now; I have complete freedom with my creativity.
It’s also nice when something that you’re creating is useful in a tangible way. For instance, you say you want to make a butchers table. In the past you made a custom cat bed for one of your friends. Has that proven to be useful?
(Laughs) I know that Sonnie was going to put cat nip in the mattress so that Pippins would sleep on it, but he lives with her boyfriend now, so I haven’t really heard.
Another one of your hobbies is sewing, in fact you made a really great dress this summer. What influenced you to take on such a tedious task?
My sewing motivation mainly comes from my mom. She used to sew all of her clothes when she was a teenager, and I do really want to get more into sewing. I just haven’t really grasped the basics of fitting, so I can’t make things without a pattern. I have to do some sort of elastic waist to make it more simple, so I want to be able to do form fitted things. It’s so incredible to be able to design something yourself and then make exactly what you want, because in reality, when you have something so specific in mind, you usually just have to settle for something you find in a store like H&M that just kind of resembles your vision.
Well I know with that dress, you had seen one that you really wanted and instead of spending tons of money on it, you just took it into your own hands and made it yourself.
Yeah, it was kind of based off of the UNIF Kickflip dress. That dress was like 160.00 dollars or something, so I went to fabric land, and they had a bunch of plaid flannel on sale; it was like 2.00 dollars a yard, so you’re right, that was my influence. I figured I might as well try my hand at it, as I definitely didn’t have the money to be spending on the actual dress.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in trying their hand at something like woodworking or sewing?
Constantly push yourself. I never really started off on easy projects, but instead focused on things that really sparked my interest or I knew someone in my life would love. I never wasted time on the little things, especially in regards to woodworking, and although that meant a lot of mistakes at first, it kept me motivated.