The whirling jigsaw cut through the wood like a sharp knife slicing through butter, sending dust and wood chips through the air. The shop teacher watched me closely with a blank stare, but he left me in control of everything.
My father had a similar saw at home, but he didn’t like us kids using it much on our own. He worried about me cutting myself. My teacher, on the outside anyway, didn’t have the same concerns. Oh, I’m sure he worried about one of us goofballs in Shop Class nicking ourselves on the blade, but he set up a number of “do it my way or else” precautions that I’m pretty sure, that if I had cut my hand, I would have tried to wrap it with some paper towels and hide it in my pocket to avoid “raising his hackles.”
In any event, when I walked out of the class, after cutting the wood, I couldn’t stop smiling. I walked like I was ten foot tall. It didn’t matter that the two ends looked like a cross between a Mallard Duck and a Pablo Picasso abstract design. I had cut it.
My smile got even bigger a few classes later, when I walked out this time with a small, stained and varnished bookshelf. The bookshelf had two two lengthy dials and you could shorten or lengthen the shelf depending on the number of books you had in the shelf.
Walking on clouds
I was never great with my hands and my mind doesn’t always think mechanically, but I somehow made my very own shelf. I had made something.
I can’t tell you whatever happened to my math notes from that year or even any of the papers I wrote in English class, but I still have that bookshelf. (In fact, I know exactly where it is, my son uses it in his room.)
A changing time
When I was middle school aged, everyone in my school had to take a Wood Shop, Industrial Drawing, Home Economics and a Cooking Class. I can’t say that I was all the excited about all four, but I’ve thought about them a lot over the years when my kids have come home with their high school course selection checklist for the following year.
While prominent back in the day, my kids have had minimal exposure to Shop and Home Ec in school. They each had Family and Consumer Sciences or something like that, but I can’t say they were thrilled. In fact, many school districts across the country have cut career and technical education classes to the bare bones, moving instead to a “college-for-everyone” approach.
Shop and Home Ec have been replaced with the need for more and more ambitious and rigorous college preparatory classes.
So instead, my kids have had the chance to take any number of Advanced Placement options. They have the chance to take dive deeps into American History, Anatomy, and Quantum Calculus. (Thanks to these classes, my oldest daughter was even able to reduce the number of classes she took at the college level.)
As someone who had big dreams of college in high school, I have mixed feelings. When I finally was able to go off to college, I was jealous of kids from wealthier schools who had a chance to take journalism and higher level writing classes or even advanced medical classes in high school that were a pipe dream for my classmates and me.
What’s the right answer
At the same time, I learned valuable skills in Home Ec and shop that my kids will have to learn elsewhere.
When I came out of one Home Ec class, I came out with a pillow that I had made myself or walked out of shop class with a new toolbox, all from a few sheets of metal that I had cut and twisted myself.
When my youngest son saw me fixing a pair of my pants recently with a simple needle and thread recently, you would have thought by his reaction that I had learned some new magic trick. He was ready to sign me up for a job on Savile Row in London with some of the world’s finest tailors. (Um, my sewing is okay, but it’s not that great.)
At the same token, he was shocked when I started talking about how a tongue and groove joint in a piece of furniture we were looking at made the piece much more valuable. At one point, he thought I was making it up as we went along. I had to tell him that I really knew my stuff.
While my results long ago in Shop Class or even Home Ec were pretty simple, albeit basic, I learned much more, including life skills and the knowledge that I could take care of myself.
Which is more important?