I remember building that little step stool
for Mom, back in grammar school shop class. It’s in my kitchen
now, over by the pantry. My wife uses it.
I remember making it during the Spring term of 8th grade, planning
to give it to Mom for her birthday in July. I also remember planning
other wood projects from the 4th thru 8th grades as surprises and
Christmas gifts for my parents. They treasured them as much as I
was proud to have made them.
That step stool is made from sturdy ¾ inch wood stock,
with a yellow pattern Formica top over plywood. It matched the décor
of our cozy kitchen on North 5th Street. My name is still scribbled
in pencil on the underside of the top. I remember every detail of
that project right down to almost messing up the holes for the screws.
I used to kid Mom about being a dwarf, only 4’ 10”
in bare feet. When I saw we could make step stools in shop class,
I instantly wanted to make one for her. Mom needed a little boost
in the kitchen to reach the top shelves of the cabinets. Dad and
I were always doing “stretch duty” for her.
I’m holding that step stool real close now and taking a
sniff. I still smell my grammar school wood shop. How different
that special room smelled and felt to my awakening senses-similar
to my Dad’s basement workshop where he and I tackled many
a home repair project. His big calloused hands next to my still
pink, soft paws. To me, shop class was an extension of home, the
learning and handing down of responsibility, like my Dad learned
from his father.
Dad would always test me in our home workshop:
“What did you learn in shop?”
“Go get me a 5/8 inch, open ended socket wrench from the
“What size and kind of screw should I use with this?”
“How should I set the plane for this piece of wood? How
do I plane the wood edge that goes against the grain of the wood?”
Close your eyes. Try and remember. Can you smell that pinewood
stock the teacher kept in a side room of the woodshop? How about
the varnish and stains? Maybe you remember the aroma of rubbing
wax, or maybe the wood glue. I certainly remember, and quite a bit
remains with me to this day-little tips I learned back then and
still use in my basement workshop.
Back in the 1950s, the Newark schools believed that students should
learn with both their heads and their hands. Wood shop was a regular
part of the school day. Today, kids are not supposed to work with
their hands. I guess folks think if you work with your hands, you
must be a blue-collar person. That’s too bad. The grammar
school shops are all pretty much gone now, converted into classrooms.
Girls had home economics classes (Home-Ec) to match with the boys
and their shop classes, but these have gone away too. I guess girls
are supposed to be executives and super women only these days. Seems
like we shun practical experience in favor of book learning. As
my friend and I muse, if there is ever a natural calamity in this
country, people will freeze and starve 15 feet away from lumber
and raw food.
Another disturbing thing that has stopped most of these hands-on
classes, including science labs, is the legal exposure of someone
possibly getting hurt! But how can you learn about safety if you
cannot touch anything that might be potentially dangerous? Sure
we got our share of scrapes, cuts and splinters-but we never repeated
the mistakes and our teachers were attentive and excellent. No one
sued the teacher because little Johnny got a cut finger.
Somehow our species has survived all the rigors the world could
toss at them including shop and Home-Ec classes. I say let the kids
take their lumps and profit by the experience. No wonder kids have
“attention deficit disorders”. They have no outlet for
all that natural, youthful energy. Let them cut some wood by hand,
and use their muscles a bit. Any wonder the kids are overweight
and couch potatoes?
I’m glad for the time I had in shop class. Around my home
are things I made-that little step stool, a bookshelf, a corner
shelf, a lamp, and some other wooden objects. It gave me a sense
of instant gratification at having accomplished something. This
complemented my intellectual studies in class. It was nice going
back and forth between my head and my hands. There was no blue-collar
stigma associated with shop.
My daughter marveled at the things I made. Her school wouldn’t
let her do any Home-Ec stuff. My wife Nancy taught her in our kitchen.
Nancy had Home-Ec courses in her East Orange school (Clifford J.
Scott) and can make dresses from scratch today without patterns
of any kind. Like me, she is a huge fan of a hands-on learning experience
combined with regular book learning.
There is great pleasure in running your hands across a finely
sanded piece of wood, or putting some wood stain on cheesecloth
and hand rubbing it into freshly prepared wood.
It’s very natural, and almost……well……sensual.
Building something is a felt experience, literally and figuratively;
and kids should be allowed the opportunity to appreciate their own
artistry. How practical and fundamental my Newark school education
was. I loved it.
There is a sign that I made as a fun gift to my Dad. I guess I
made it when I was about 12 or so. It hung in our basement workshop
on 5th Street, for 35 years. Dad gave it to me after a stroke had
taken his deft hands, making it very difficult for him to handle
his old tools.
It wasn’t anything fancy, that sign, just a little celebration
of our time together down there, and the interesting stuff we always
tackled. The inscription I stenciled on the sign read, “Geppetto
& Son- Repairs Made While You Wait”. The Geppetto reference
of course is to the Walt Disney Pinocchio story. That sign hangs
in my basement workshop now.
Shop class was just another way my Dad and I communicated. Farm
life, The Depression, and World War II taught him how to survive
and fix almost anything. It was a common interest we could share.
Most of my school friends put in time working with their fathers
too, doing fix-it jobs around the house or lending a hand repairing
the family car. My experiences were not so unusual. I wonder how
many kids today will be able to share such experiences as I did
with my father.
School for my generation was supposed to be an extension of home,
preparation for a lifetime of responsibility. Today, everyone is
supposed to be a professional. I think we should let young folks
get their hands good and dirty; and get some cuts and bruises. Let
them make some things and get that same sense of accomplishment.
Nothing helps out self-esteem better than that—much better
than all the empty slogans and politically correct hoopla. Bring
back school shop and Home-Ec classes!
The same night Dad asked me to take the sign from his workshop,
he gave me his tools, including his father’s, handed down
to him. With all those tools clanging around in the trunk, I cried
in the car, all the way home. The torch was passed. Dad died a few
Sometimes, when I miss him, I go downstairs, take out his tools
and just hold them. He always stops by for a little while…..sometimes
offering advice on repair problems…..or maybe reminding me
to check up on certain things. Just the other day, he helped me
with a plumbing problem.