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0 Comments | Dec 07, 2012


Officially it appeared on the curriculum as Industrial Arts, but it was known colloquially as simply Shop.  Whichever moniker you prefer, it was, during my adolescence, a rite of passage for teenage boys attending pretty much any public school system in the U.S. It was book-ended, at least in the sixties and seventies, by Home Economics, the analogous gender-role-reinforcing “academic” requirement for junior high girls. Never having myself stepped up to the challenge of putting children through school, I’m not entirely certain how this tradition has evolved in recent years, but at that time and in that place it was understood, and accepted without too much whining or debate over gender stereotypes or political correctness, that this particular male/female divide simply was not to be crossed. No girls were suing their school administrators to get into Shop. No boys were queuing up for Home Ec. And I don’t recall hearing of a single case during my youth in which parents or students expressed any interest in questioning, much less, God forbid, challenging this state of affairs, though it’s easy to imagine these strictures having by now been relaxed in this new and enlightened age.

The ostensible purpose of shop class was to instruct adolescent boys in that most manly of life skills, the proper use of tools, both manual and powered. The degree to which the student already possessed any of these skills prior to reaching seventh grade was a function of what sort of father you had. If he was the handy sort, had a well-equipped basement or garage, and was a skilled enough negotiator to cajole your mother into allowing her twelve-year-old son to operate power tools, then you had an initial advantage over kids like me, whose closest encounter with tools prior to shop class was using a hammer to explode caps on a rock in the back yard. As things turned out, that admittedly limited experience did not serve me particularly well when the time finally arrived to cobble together my first birdhouse.

But while the purpose of shop class was, on paper at least, the safe and proper use of tools, it was, at its essence, far more than that. It was a young man’s introduction to that most fundamental of human endeavors, the creation of something from nothing, or if not nothing, then the rawest of raw materials. Thinking back on it now, it would have been a helpful and potentially inspiring introduction if the instructor had placed what we were about to undertake into its proper historical context. From the first troglodyte polishing a fragment of flint into an arrowhead to the nineteenth century industrial titans who forged steel into bridges and locomotives, the conversion of raw materials into useful objects is the very essence of what it means to be civilized. It would have been nice to hear something like that from Mister Whitaker before he started lecturing us about the differences between red oak and knotty pine.

One wonders, with the benefit of many years’ hindsight and reflection, what the job description for a shop teacher must read like. This was, after all, not like being a sports coach, in which case you were, at least at our school, obliged to teach one or more actual academic classes in addition to fulfilling your coaching duties[1]. Shop teachers were full-time shop teachers. It went, one presumed, without saying that the candidate required copious experience with the complete panoply of tools available in your standard wood and metal shops, the very best indication of said experience being the absence of one, or at most two, minor appendages. This was, though, I suspect, a bit of a balancing act. Given that an important element of any shop teacher’s repertoire was the ability to wax trenchantly and more or less constantly about safety, the ability to dramatically wave about one’s four-fingered hand served the dual purpose of impressing the safety message into the psyche of your charges while also engaging their attention in a manner uniquely consistent with the gruesome proclivities of that age and gender. On the other hand, as it were, too many missing digits might seem to suggest to the educational powers-that-be a level of practical incompetence inappropriate to the position being sought.

It was also critical to the success of any shop teacher that he have at his command a robust arsenal of grisly accident stories with which to reinforce the safety message. It didn’t particularly matter whether these stories were true or apocryphal, so long as they conveyed one or more important lessons about why, for example, it was a bad idea to interrupt someone who was working at a table saw, or the sorts of grim things that could happen to the boy who carelessly left his shirt tail or gold chain hanging out while working around a piece of rapidly-spinning, sharply-bladed machinery. In this sense at least, shop class was a close rival to Driver’s Ed for its potential gross-out factor, the latter being notable primarily for the day you got to watch that old fifties film with all the bloody car wrecks.

And finally, not to belabor the whole safety thing too much, the shop teacher needed to convey an excellent command of discipline and respect. After all, dealing effectively with two kids passing notes in the back of English Comp class is a rather different ballgame from managing a roomful of pubescent boys with power tools. All of which goes some way to explaining why the stereotypical shop teacher had the look of a retired Marine Corp drill sergeant and the demeanor to match.

As a quasi-academic pursuit, shop was altogether different from everything else you did in school. There were no exams, no studying, no homework. You were there to master hands-on skills and, in the end, to produce a physical object of practical utility, artistic merit, or, rarely but ideally, both. The ephemeral test scores and rote fact regurgitation that comprised the raison detre of trigonometry, social studies, and history bore no resemblance—physical or psychological—to the visceral satisfaction that attended the unveiling of your first birdhouse or cutting board. And while the parents who were dreaming of Harvard Law School for their progeny might have taken small satisfaction in this necessary adolescent ritual, there was no denying the gut-level feeling of raw accomplishment.[2]

For me it was a tumultuous experience. I grew up one of those geeky bespectacled kids who built plastic model airplanes, so the general concept of working with my hands and producing something physical and concrete was not a new thing. But the transition from tweezers and glue to circular saws and drill presses was nothing less than life altering. To this day, I can calm whatever stress the world throws my way through the simple expedient of sanding by hand a fine piece of maple or drilling holes with a well sharpened Forstner bit. My affinity for tools—particularly antique hand tools—is so ingrained in my psyche that if the day ever comes when pecuniary hardship obliges me to sell my tools to buy food, I will be a hungry fellow indeed.

It’s easy to imagine that the strong connection between men and their tools can be traced directly back to that first semester of junior high shop class. Or it may be that the class served only as a vehicle to draw forth from certain boys a latent attraction there since birth, something that’s hard-wired into the male DNA. If so, I hope that somewhere there are biologists striving to identify the gene that draws men to the tool section at Home Depot, for I have this gene in spades and would take pleasure in knowing its name.

Setting aside for a moment the purely physical gratification of building things, there was, as well, a strong metaphysical aspect to shop class that is often overlooked. Virtually every lesson, trick, or technique bestowed upon students by the instructor had a profound philosophical real-world analog that applied to everyone, whether or not you happened to be handy with router and joiner. Perhaps the greatest of these life lessons is “measure twice, cut once,” an aphorism bestowed with such power and breadth that, while it now borders on being hackneyed, it is, nevertheless, as applicable to the campaigns of Napoleon or the speeches of Lincoln as it is to the humblest birdhouse fabricator. Similarly, an action as seemingly banal as sanding a piece of wood along its grain (i.e., “going with the grain”) rather than orthogonal to it contains an ineluctable truth that requires little if any elucidation. The neophyte learns, as well, that hardwood, while more challenging to work with and less forgiving of error, produces, in the end, a vastly more long-lasting and satisfying product. Choosing pine is the easy way out. Selecting maple demonstrates fortitude and perspicacity, possibly even wisdom.

That said, I nevertheless chose white pine (in the spirit of walking before one runs) for my very first project, a humble nightstand. Nothing fancy—two sides, a top and bottom, and one shelf. I spent an entire semester lovingly cutting, shaving, sanding, assembling, and finishing a piece that today I could easily knock out in a couple of hours. But at that time it wasn’t about speed or efficiency or even the achievement of perfection in the finished product. It was about transformation—in my case, a small stack of plain knotty pine boards into a usable nightstand—a nightstand that endures to this day, by the way, while much of the historical minutia and mathematical formulae of those years has vanished from my life like the proverbial straw in a cyclone. It was the journey that mattered, a journey of discovery and learning. But what, really, can a twelve-year-old learn from building his first nightstand?

For starters, of course, you learn not to saw your fingers off or let your jewelry get caught in a fast-spinning lathe or drill press.[3] But, at a more enduring, if slightly less existential, level, you learn the real-world importance of angles—not in the abstract, formulaic, Euclidian sense, but in the tactile, this-object-cannot-perform-its-intended-function-unless-the-angles-are-correct sense. You learn that the faster you sand a piece of wood, the deeper the splinter slides under your fingernail[4], another life lesson having something vaguely to do with trade-offs. You learn why three-legged pieces of furniture cannot rock[5] whereas four-legged ones invariably do, regardless of how many times you shave off a tiny bit from one leg. And, perhaps most importantly, and notwithstanding a semester’s worth of fervent exhortations from your teacher, you learn that any project worth doing is worth bleeding on[6].

In some cases, you also learn a thing or two about achievement, and, potentially, disappointment. At our junior high, shop class was broken into two semesters, the first of which was wood shop, the second the somewhat incompletely named metal shop—incomplete in the sense that the available construction media comprised essentially anything you could come up with that wasn’t wood. Both classes—wood and metal—took place in the same large room, and, as it happened, there were a few large and somewhat daunting tools toward the rear of the room whose purpose was unclear to first semester students, but which, anyone brave enough to ask was informed, were for the metal shop students’ use. These included assorted bending presses and specialized jigs and saws. Also included in this collection of arcane devices, many of which looked as though they’d been lifted straight out of a Spanish Inquisition torture chamber, was a small crucible and high-temperature furnace with which the truly brave could endeavor to actually cast something. In objectively assessing my finished nightstand from the first-semester wood class, I had concluded, perhaps a bit too harshly, that I had not stretched myself as far as I might have, a decision I meant to compensate for in the second half of the class. Which is how I came to cast my own chess set out of aluminum.

It was a wonderfully complex and audacious undertaking, so much so that the instructor took rather a personal stake in helping me see it through to completion. It was, in effect, two separate projects, the first phase of which required that I design and fabricate a master of each piece from wood. The challenge was to come up with a design that not only conveyed the essence of  the piece being created (queen, rook, etc.) but which was also axially symmetrical, i.e., formed in such a way that I could slice it cleanly in two for the purpose of placing each identical half on either side of our primitive sand-casting mold system. Having created the six original master pieces, I then used each repeatedly to render all thirty-two of the final aluminum castings, an exercise that consumed not only the entire semester’s worth of class time, but more than a few late evenings as well. It was pure tedium aligning the master halves for each individual pouring, but great fun and more than a little daunting melting scrap aluminum fragments in the small crucible, tenuously manipulating the ponderous vessel with long tongs, and pouring the molten metal into small holes at the top of the mold, hoping all the while that the inside shape held up, i.e., the sand did not collapse, a frequent occurrence which, in the end, resulted in something like twice as many individual castings as the eventual number of usable pieces.

I mentioned disappointment earlier, but it wasn’t the work itself or the outcome of the endeavor, imperfect as it was, that engendered any such feelings. Each year, the Stanley Tool Company sponsored an award at our school for the best Industrial Arts project, one each for metal and wood shop. Somewhere along the line, as I inevitably compared my efforts to those of my companions in metal shop, I managed to convince myself that I was a viable contender for that year’s edition of the Stanley Golden Hammer award. When it was finally announced during an all-hands assembly at the close of the school year, I was awarded the runner-up certificate, losing to a dark horse candidate who had cobbled together a table lamp out of colored pieces of Plexiglas, an effort I felt to be of dubious artistic merit and one that certainly had required but a fraction of the effort that had gone into my chess set. Like any poor loser, I convinced myself that it was all politics and moved on with my life. I still have the chess set, though, and will occasionally take it out and admire the sheen of the metal and the heft of each piece whenever I feel like waxing nostalgic.

Shop class was easily the most memorable experience of my junior high school years[7]. I learned to understand and love tools that year. I learned that bad things—painful things—can happen if you’re not extremely careful with those tools, and that those bad things can happen very fast if you’re not particularly careful with power tools. I learned the rudiments of planning a project, determining what it will cost and how long it will take to complete. I learned how (and how not) to treat a piece of wood and I learned how to safely handle a crucible of molten metal without burning down my school or maiming myself. I learned to recognize when I had not aimed sufficiently high and how to accept defeat graciously[8] when I overreached. I learned that what you get out of something is more or less in proportion to what you put in. I learned that creating useful things from wood and metal can reveal excellent lessons for the challenges I would encounter later in life. And I learned that building something with your own two hands, while it almost certainly won’t make you wealthy, can go quite a long way to making you happy, especially if, once you’ve poured all of yourself into it and finally gotten it just right, you then give what you’ve made to someone you care for.

[1] I vividly recall my seventh-grade Biology teacher explaining on our first day of class that he was, first and foremost, the Assistant Varsity Football Coach, his point being that, while not prepared to say it in so many words, he was being forced to teach us Biology against his will.

[2] Similar to that hard-to-describe feeling certain men get from mowing a lawn, a task which, for all its banality, leaves one with a genuine if ephemeral feeling of accomplishment.

[3] Kids occasionally learned these valuable life lessons the hard way, though I never witnessed it myself, much to my adolescent disappointment.

[4] On a related note, you learn, as well, that extracting that splinter is vastly more painful than getting it in there in the first place.

[5] Though they most certainly can lean.

[6] Related to this, you also learn quickly that blood is a powerful staining agent and is damned tough to sand off unprotected wood.

[7] With the possible exception of sitting three seats back from Denise Adelman in Earth Science class, but that’s an entirely different story.

[8] Or at least to convey graciousness even if I didn’t feel it.

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