SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
June 19, 2011

They Were Obviously Trying to Kill Us

 

Upon entering Washington Junior High in the mid-seventies, each student was given a choice between two required and equally mortifying tracks: you could either take Home Ec or you could take what they called “Industrial Arts.” Both lasted three years and amounted to the core of the Green Bay Public School System’s educational program.

            There was actually very little choice in the matter. All the girls were generally expected to take Home Ec, where they would learn about cooking and sewing and child care, and all the boys were funneled into Industrial Arts, where they learned about grease and tools and such. Of course if you were blessed with a certain intestinal fortitude or were secure enough in your own sexuality you could make the dangerous leap across the gender barrier, but that meant leaving yourself wide open to cruel jibes and fast-spreading rumors. There was one girl, as I recall, who opted for Industrial Arts, and a group of four or five of the biggest jocks in the school who took Home Ec. Being jocks, they had the advantage of not having to worry about anyone questioning their sexual identity. For those three years they laughed at the rest of us as they baked cookies and brownies and chickens, while we inhaled sawdust and tried to get the ink off our hands before geometry class. No matter how tempting they made it sound, there was no getting out of your initial track. Once you chose one or the other before that first day of classes, that’s where you stayed.

            I spent all those years in junior high in a constant state of abject terror. Even if I wasn’t physically in Industrial Arts at a given moment, I knew I would be soon. Of course I knew why it was such a central part of the curriculum. Green Bay being what it was at the time, most of the boys in the school were destined for careers at the paper mills, the canning plants, or the box factories, while most of the girls were doomed to be housewives. That bitter truth of the situation just made things all the more depressing and horrifying for those of us who had different plans.

            Now, over the course of three years, Industrial Arts was broken down into six sections. Drafting, woodworking, printing, simple machines, metal shop, and “electricity class,” which was an introduction to electrical engineering. And all those sections were divided among three thoroughly destroyed men who hated teaching, hated students, and simply wanted to die. I can’t say as I blamed them, as that’s how I felt from day one.

            Mr. Brundy taught drafting and woodworking, and was perhaps the worst, most dangerous choice for both subjects. You just don’t want a man with the shakes showing you how to draw a straight line or take a careful measurement, and you don’t want to give an angry drunk easy access to sharp, pointed woodworking tools, as angry drunks have a tendency to throw things.

            Mr. Brundy kept a bottle waiting in the small room in the back, and would make any number of unscheduled visits there over the course of the class. I’m just glad I took him first thing in the morning, as I’d hate to see what kind of shape he was in after lunch. As things stood I had to spend most of my time in his class ducking””either to avoid the flying awls and drills, or to avoid Mr. Brundy’s breath as he leaned over me to examine what I was working on. My own incompetence made things worse, as it gave him more reason to lean unsteadily over my shoulder to see what I was doing. Seeing what I was doing tended to make him mad. And when Mr. Brundy got mad, he turned useful tools into deadly projectiles.

            All of this was common knowledge around the school. Everyone knew he was drunk before the first bell rang. The teachers knew, the administrators knew, the parents knew, but nobody ever said a word about it, and Mr. Brundy stumbled blearily on, year after year.

            I left the class shellshocked and needing a drink myself, dreading what I might run into the second year.

            The following year came printing and simple machines with Mr. Nielson. This time it wasn’t the teacher who was the problem. He was a portly, bespectacled oaf with an enormous toupee who always wore a white short-sleeved shirt and a clip-on tie. Angry, yes, but his anger posed less of an immediate threat. He mostly expressed his anger by calling people “smartguy,” as in “Shut up in the back, why don’cha there, smartguy?” “Whaddya think you’re doin’? Huh? Smartguy?” or “Think you’re pretty smart, don’cha, eh, smartguy?”

            (It’s even funnier when you hear it in a heavy Wisconsin accent.)

            I didn’t even mind printing so much. I had no interest in writing or newspapers at the time, but I still found the art of pre-computerized, Gutenberg-style movable typesetting intriguing for some reason.

            No, the problem there, more so than in drafting or woodworking class, was the other students. It seems the proximity of ink bottles, printing presses, and tiny pieces of lead type somehow dredged up the innate cruelty you tend to find in doomed thirteen-year-olds. It was very easy to destroy three weeks worth of painstaking work with the simple flick of a finger, or a new shirt with a handful of black ink.

            I can’t make any judgment about the simple machines section of the class, as I’ve completely repressed my memory of it. All I remember is that we made a lot of buttons””the kind with pictures and messages and pins on the back. I don’t even recall what was on any of the buttons I was assigned to make. I do recall that a few of the doomed kids got a kick out of staying after class to make buttons on the sly with obscene messages, some of which were surprisingly clever.

            It was in ninth grade’s metal shop and electricity combo that I was confronted with a deep and abiding terror that has stayed with me to this day. It wasn’t the other students so much””I was getting used to their abuse””and it wasn’t the teacher, who seemed to take pity on me. Mr. McClary was a very large man with a very small head and a very high voice. It made perfect sense that behind his back students””even students who weren’t in his class””called him Baby Huey. There was a striking resemblance, I gotta say.

            McClary knew what everyone called him, but was wise enough to recognize there was no force on earth that would stop it. He just moved along in his sad, lethargic, squeaky-voiced way. (To see him now I might assume he was a child molester. He had that look about him, a babyfaced John Wayne Gacy type, but I saw no evidence of it back then.)

            Anyway, the problem in this third and final leg of the Industrial Arts nightmare was me. It was in McClary’s class that my own ineptitude really started catching up with me. I should’ve guessed there was trouble ahead when I first stepped foot in the gray and musty classroom and caught a whiff of coke dust, burnt sand, and brimstone

            Metal shop, see, involved not just sharp, twisted and jagged bits of metal, but tools that were used to cut metal, crimp metal, and bend metal as well, and some extremely high temperatures used to melt metal. I didn’t need some crazy drunk hurling augers to put my life at risk—I had plenty of opportunities around to do it all by myself. I was not only getting hurt a lot, I was also quickly discovering I had absolutely no aptitude when it came to the cutting, crimping, or soldering of metal.

            Those kids who were heading straight to the local can factory after graduation were finally in their element, while I hobbled along three or four projects behind. While they were all making tiny molded steel anvils, I was still trying to turn that fucking tin can into a fucking sugar scoop no one would ever use. By the end of that section, the stupid sugar scoop was the only project out of an assigned six I had completed, and I had to cheat to finish that one, as I was not terribly handy with the eighteenth century soldering iron at my disposal. (To his credit, McClary knew I cheated, made it obvious he knew I cheated, even pointed out to me exactly where and how I’d cheated, but gave me a passing grade anyway, because he felt bad for someone who obviously had no useful survival skills whatsoever.)

            Then came electricity. My Grandpa Roscoe was a self-taught electrical engineer and inventor, and a brilliant one to boot. I have inherited none of my Grandpa Roscoe's abilities.

            I sat there in class dumbfounded and terrified. Relativity I understood. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle I could comprehend. Amperes, watts, and ohms I could not grasp. Put things on a grand theoretical scale and use a lot of clever analogies, I’m fine. Bring it down to earth and give it some practical purpose and my throat tightens up. I couldn’t even read a damn electric meter.

            Most of our projects and tests in that class involved hooking a bunch of wires and alligator clips together in some new and exciting way in order to light a Christmas tree bulb. Every single time, everything we did, I sat there helplessly, staring at that dead cold bulb, willing it to light and knowing it never would. Even if it did come on (which it didn’t) I would’ve been unable to explain why or how. Black wires, red wires, blue wires. I just wanted to cut the fucking blue wire and blow the whole place to hell. But that probably wouldn’t have worked, either, given that I was supposed to cut the red wire.

            Again ol’ Baby Huey took pity on me and let me slide through with a passing grade. Perhaps he thought it would’ve been cruel to force me to go through all that again, or maybe he really was a child molester trying to earn my trust. I can’t say. All I can say is that I left that Industrial Arts track scarred but relieved.

            To this day I live in a world in which I cannot make things, cannot fix things, and do not know how anything around me works. It’s a magical place.

 

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