If there is anything that we all share it’s 12 long years spent in the classrooms of a wide variety of teachers. I’m getting genuinely ancient now, and most of those names and faces have slowly faded away, but there are a few who will never be forgotten.
At the very end of my years in public schools I learned a truth I’d never given a thought to during all those 12 long years. I learned that what we see of those people standing up at the front of a classroom might be only the thinnest possible slice of whom they really are.
One thing that everyone in Chapman Tech loved was our first year in wood shop, where we learned how to shape and finish hardwoods, and then demonstrated what we had learned by turning out a finished product. I made a walnut Chippendale table for Mom that she never got done praising, and some of the kids made even better things.
Our first year woodworking teacher, Mr. Thompson, was no doubt the most beloved teacher in the school. An elderly English craftsman with a broad accent, wonderful skills, and a great sense of humor, we all loved the way he taught. He would, for example, sometimes take a piece of wood that someone was working on, hold it up to his eye, run a try square down its length, and say, “Taint squar!” in a way that made us all laugh.
If there was any teacher in that school we all thought we knew well, it was Mr. Thompson — until he died during my senior year and we read this in our yearbook:
“In Memoriam: Edward J. Thompson
“Edward J. Thompson, known to his friends and colleagues as “Jim,” passed away Wednesday, December 15, after a brief illness. Born and brought up in England, he led a more varied and colorful life than many realized. As a youth he used his artistic talents in helping his father paint and redecorate buildings in England, including some of the well-known cathedrals. The Chester Cathedral was entirely redone by the Thompsons.
“Enlisting in the service when only sixteen years old, he served in the Boer War and received recognition from the country he served. He later went to sea, thereby visiting much of the world. A world globe at his home was studded with pins, each pin indicating a place where he had stayed for at least twenty-four hours. He also enjoyed a taste of success on the vaudeville stage.
After coming to the United States he worked for some time with Mason Hamlin piano manufacturers finishing pianos, and was later head of one of the departments in Jordan Marsh department store in Boston. Before coming to Chapman Tech he conducted his own private business in cabinet making, refinishing, upholstery, and interior decorating in North Attleboro, Mass.
“During his last years, as teacher of woodworking at Tech, he was also able to pursue his hobbies of refinishing and painting. People who appreciated the real feel and knowledge of the sea in his artistry bought many of his seascapes, which were his particular forté.
“Those of us, however, who knew little or nothing of his earlier life and background, will always remember Jim Thompson for his emphasis on neat, conscientious work, his genial humor, and his ever-ready wit. He was a positive character with a positive influence that will be long felt the while it is missed.”
Can you believe that? And we kids knew not a single word of it!