NORTH LAWNDALE — Last Wednesday was payday for the "employees" of teacher Dorothea Tobin at North Lawndale College Prep.
The twice-a-month ritual — in which a dozen or so kids crowd in her office waiting for a white envelope — is the result of one of the charter school's most popular after-school activities: knitting.
It might seem counterintuitive in an era of videogames and iPhones, but the activity has been popular with dozens of boys and girls over the past five years.
Ben Woodard says some students are empowered by the knitting:
"I wanted to learn how to make a bow tie," explained 16-year-old junior Tyshon Lowe of his first knitting project. Now, the seasoned veteran makes hats and scarves — and last week was working on a pair of fingerless gloves.
"It's fun — and it's a quick way to make money," said Lowe, who pulls in up to $400 a month.
Tobin, 62, of Rogers Park, dips into her own pocket to buy her students' work up front — a scarf goes for $25, a bow tie for $10 — and then sells them for the same price online to friends, family and colleagues.
The bow ties are especially popular around campus because ties are part of the school's dress code. Teachers are partial to the winter wear.
“The kids are really proud when they see teachers in their scarves and hats,” Tobin said.
She started the club five years ago after she picked up the pastime at her chuch, St. Gertrude Catholic Parish in Edgewater. A group of members got together to help a friend quit smoking by replacing the habit with knitting. It worked, and the group still meets.
A few years ago, one of her students suggested changing the high school club to BT Lives in the Stitch, after Tobin's 19-year-old son Billy Tobin who died in 2012 after a freak injury from a fall while out with friends.
Students like Lowe have shown great business prowess, Tobin said.
"Tyshon inevitably on a payday is getting a much bigger check than anybody else," she said. "He knows how to play it."
But the knitting club isn't all about the cash for the 30 or so North Lawndale students who participate each year.
"I’ve always been able to observe that doing something with your hands and making something continues to have a real draw, in spite of other things that are available — making something is still very powerful," Tobin said.
Freshman Destiny Jones, 15, finds relief in each stitch from the stress of high school.
"It calms you," she said, working yarn around her knitting needles while working a light-blue scarf in Room 107 at 1313 S. Sacramento Blvd. Her family also appreciates her new-found pastime.
"It's better than me going outside every day," she said.
Lemia Black, 15, said knitting was therapeutic.
"Sometimes I get nervous," she said, and knitting helps.
For 15-year-old Andrea Johnson, "It keeps me out of trouble," she said. "Most of the time at home I just knit, knit, knit."
Tobin said she's just hoping to break even after selling the students' work for the same price she pays for them. Most of the yarn is donated, she said.
"This is where my husband makes fun of me — it’s the worst business," she said.
But, again, it's not all about the money.
"I love ... watching kids that might be shy and withdrawn in other settings, then they’re knitters and they start talking in a natural way," she said. "I love that."
The knitters have also become "part of our school culture," said principal Tim Bowman.
"It gives kids a sense of empowerment," he said. "Kids can say, 'I made this.' They feel a sense of accomplishment, a sense of belonging."
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