Apr 13, 2016

Trauma, Terror, and Beefcake of Junior High Shop Class

I read somewhere that the number of shop classes in elementary and high schools has dropped 75% during the last 20 years.

This is a cause for celebration.  Shop class was the biggest trauma of junior high.

Washington Junior High was segregated by gender.  All girls had to take home economics, to prepare them for their future as housewives, and all boys had to take woodshop, to prepare them for their future as...um...carpenters?

It was horrible.  The "teacher," Mr. Worse Than Hitler, was the nastiest, meanest, most despicable martinet who ever lived.  You tried to be as quiet and inobtrusive as possible: if he noticed you, he would criticize you, call you stupid, berate you for having a "smart mouth."  And God forbid those times he walked around the class.

Head down, hands at your side, no eye contact.

Like being in prison.  No, worse.

And what, exactly, did Mr. Worse Than Hitler teach?

If I taught a shop class, I would start off by explaining what the various tools were called and what they were used for.  Maybe some safety tips.

Then the types of wood, what each was used for.

Demonstrate some simple projects.

Explain how this stuff would be useful to us in the future.

Nope -- he just let us loose: "The tools are over there -- the wood is over there.  Go to it."

I had no idea what to do, and I didn't dare ask Mr. Worse Than Hitler.  He would glare at me, call me stupid, or give me detention for having a "smart mouth."

Finally I figured it out -- I was already supposed to know all about working with tools.  All boys were.  It was part of our DNA.

Claiming ignorance about something that was innate?  You might as well claim that you didn't like sports, or girls.

There were no tests, quizzes, or graded projects.  But still, I got a D- for the semester.

Plus detention four times.
1. Not keeping my eyes lowered when Mr. Worse Than Hitler walked by.
2. Hammering a nail wrong.
3.-4.  Just because he felt like it.

But there was a bright side.

Washington Junior High was also segregated by social class.  Middle class kids, got college-preparatory science, math, English, and foreign languages.

Working class kids were channeled into remedial English, bonehead science, and "business math."

The only time we saw each other was in the classes required for everyone: gym, woodshop, and metal shop.

Wild, surly boys from the "wrong side" of 18th Avenue, wearing tight jeans and shirts with three buttons unbuttoned, smelling of their older brothers' cologne.

Italians and Greeks with thick biceps and big hands and dark slick-backed hair.

The only black kid at Washington, tall, lithe, with an enormous Afro that he combed constantly.

Catholic boys, future priests wearing scapulars.  

Hints of transgression, lawbreaking, sexual profligacy.

It was almost worth the daily trauma of Mr. Worse Than Hitler.

But I still run fast in the opposite direction whenever I am asked to do something involving hammers, nails, or screwdrivers.

See also: What is Gym Class For?