Shop Class

by Harry T. Roman


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 tool cabinet”

“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 years later.

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.

Thanks Pop.


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