More than once I’ve mentioned how I enjoyed my high school a lot more than I might have if it hadn’t been for the great shop classes it offered.
Naturally, our high school, like any school, was there to teach the “three Rs”—and it did it very well. But it did more than that. It had a special endowment that let it run two periods extra every day. And in those two periods — every day, for four years — we learned a lot!
But there was something they didn’t teach us, something I don’t think they teach in any school: How to look inside someone with a few years under his belt and see who he or she really is.
It’s odd, you know, when we look at an elderly person all we see is gray hair, a bent back, and a slowed walk. It’s like looking at a nice old home, seeing the paint and the trim and the shingles, but forgetting that someone lives in there.
The best example I can give is that of my freshman year shop teacher, Mister Thompson, an elderly Englishman we all thought we knew — but didn’t. In his mid-60s, Mister Thompson was a genuine character. Beneath an always smiling face lay a sense of humor that just would not quit. He worked hard at looking stern and forbidding, but it didn’t quite come off. We saw right through it, and loved the old guy all the more for trying.
Mind you, he was no pushover when it came to the quality of your work. It seemed to us that he could do anything with a tool and a piece of wood, and was determined that we should get as good at it as he was — in our first year in wood shop.
We began freshman wood shop by first learning how to turn a rough blank of white pine into a well planed 2” X 2” X 12” product destined to become a “practice joint.” I’ll tell you about them in a minute. The question of whether or not your stock was “finished” depended upon the practiced eye of old Mister Thompson, who would take it in hand, hold it up to his eye, run a try-square down its length, and hand it back to you.
You got it back with either one of two comments. “Done and done.” or “Tain’t squar.”
If it wasn’t square you went back to your bench, put your stock back in the vise, sharpened up your blade, and went at it again. The goal was, as I said, a finished 2” X 2” piece of white pine ready to be turned into a practice joint, but if you began to go below two inches square, you just planed away until you got the dang thing square. I have seen some kids keep at it until I swear it looked like they were planing a long thin toothpick.
To get us ready to make tables, or chairs, or hope chests, or some project made of the hardwood of our choice, we made mortise and tenon joints, lap joints, dovetail joints — and more — all joined together at right angles and cemented with fish bone glue kept in a scalding hot pot heated over a gas fire.
How did Mister Thompson test our joints to see if they were “proper?” He placed them on the bench, standing on their ends like an arch, took a heavy wooden mallet, drew it high into the air, and slammed it down. The joint always broke, but the question was not whether or not it would break, but whether it would break across the wood or along the lines of your joint.
The joints, you see, were supposed to be stronger than the wood. And amazingly enough they usually were!
It wasn’t until our senior year we got to know the real Mister Thompson.
Sadly, he died, an event that cast a shadow of gloom over the entire school. Mister Thompson gone? Not down there in the wood shop anymore? It seemed almost impossible.
I happened to be literary editor of the Torch, our high school yearbook, and Mister Tasca, our sponsor, handed me a memorial tribute written by a school board member and told me to fit it into the yearbook at the point where it would have the greatest meaning.
I sat down, began to read, and ran head-on into one of the greatest revelations of my life.
To begin with “Mister Thompson” became “Jim.” I’d never thought about the fact that Mister Thompson had a first name, though it should have been obvious. Everyone has. He had always been just Mister Thompson. Now he became Edward J. Thompson. Jim. A good friend of the board member who had written the testimonial.
And the rest of that testimonial absolutely floored me!
What? Owned his own refinishing and upholstery business up in Massachusetts? And here I thought he’d just always been a teacher.
He what? Worked with his father to restore the artwork in some of the best known cathedrals in England?
And what? Our Mister Thompson? On the stage? Part of a Vaudeville act? Our Mister Thompson? Singing? Dancing?
And he what? Fought in the Boer war? A decorated war hero?
I read on, only half believing what I was seeing.
And he what? Oh, no! I can’t even begin to picture it. Our Mister Thompson? A sailor? For how many years? Twenty-five? Are you kidding! Sailed around the world how many times? Had a huge globe at home with pins stuck in all the places he had been to?
But here are the words that stunned me most of all, words about our short, balding little Mister Thompson. Read on.
“A man who painted in oils, beautiful seascapes which were bought by people who appreciated the feel and knowledge of the sea apparent in his artistry.”
I have been surprised in my life, but never more than I was as I read those words. Here was a man who seemed as plain as the shop coat he wore at work every day, a man with but a single gift, a knowledge of wood tools. And suddenly he had more facets than the Kohinoor diamond, each one more astonishing than the next.
I will never forget that moment. It changed my whole attitude toward the elderly.
From that day to this, I have looked upon anyone with gray hair as a book waiting to be read.