“If I were a carpenter ,and you were a lady . . .” Tim Hardin
Sometimes you look in the mirror and wonder how you became the person reflected there. For me, part of the answer goes back to seventh grade. Back then, boys in that grade had to take a course in “manual training.” We shortened it to simply “manual.” Humboldt School had no shop so one day a week we walked the few miles to Shephard School. We were allowed ample time to get there, so the trip itself became an adventure. I walked with my friends, Bill, William and Jimmy.
Having neither smart phones nor apps we made up our own games to amuse ourselves along the way, from leaping off retaining walls to exploring vacant lots along the route. And we discussed things important to the adolescent mind, one of which was growing in importance. Girls.
“What do you think they do while we’re at manual?” Jimmy asked one day. Good question. None of us had actually ever talked to a girl, mysterious and somewhat frightening creatures that they were. “I don’t know,” Bill confessed, “Maybe play with dolls?” William had a sister. In our minds this was not quite the same as an actual girl, but we figured it gave him a leg up on the rest of us. “I don’t think 7th grade girls still play with dolls,” he advised, “Probably they just take a nap or something.”
Remarkably, half a century would elapse before a Humboldt/McKinley girl enlightened me about what they really did. They learned how to cook, sew, make a bed, set a proper table and perhaps most critically, they learned the rules of etiquette.
Remember, gender roles were set in concrete in the 50's. Nobody ever asked a girl if she’d like to take manual, or a boy if he might enjoy cooking. Such questions would’ve been an affront to “community standards.” So, it was off to manual we boys went each week.
Mr. Blight was the teacher. He was a tall, slender man with a slight limp and a way about him that was both gentle and firm. He quickly earned our respect, no mean feat as like most boys our age we were no more than little heathens and potential hoodlums, as evidenced by the big “rumble” that happened one day between the Shephard boys and we Humboldt ruffians - about which the less said the better. It was not a scene from “West Side Story.”
And Mr. Blight was not like most teachers. What he taught was far different from other classes where you might, for example, read about the principal export of Guatemala. Instead, we learned about tools. And about woodworking. We learned the difference between a cross-cut saw and a rip saw. We found out what a brace and bit were and how to use a wood plane without chipping or splitting the end of the piece. We learned how to use and take care of tools, how to square up a piece of lumber, what it meant to chamfer a board and how to approach a project in a methodical, step by step fashion. We got none of this from a book. Mr. Blight showed us. We learned from his quiet, patient example. For the end of the semester we were to put our newfound knowledge to work by actually making something.
Like many of my friends, my project was a pump lamp. It was not a simple endeavor. You had to follow directions and do things right or it wouldn’t turn out. There was measuring and sawing and drilling and some delicate work with a chisel. The components had to be properly joined. There was sanding and staining and finishing. It involved wood and plastic and some basic electric wiring as well.
It was work, but it was fun, too. And Mr. Blight was nearby to offer help where needed. I messed up a little. Misread one dimension for the pump handle and made a poor choice of plastic color. Still, I made a serviceable lamp. Not perfect, but good enough to grace my parents night stand for many years. Since their passing the pump lamp sits on my desk.
The manual project still casts its light after more than fifty years. When we walked into Mr. Blight’s shop we were boys. We learned from him how to do things. Practical skills we would put to use for the rest of our lives. We had become makers of things and by extension fixers of broken things. We had mastered some beginning steps on the road to becoming men, as men were seen in the 1950's. And as I look back on it, we benefitted from what the girls were taught as well.
Not right then and not directly, but later by a sort of osmosis - because of the way a woman has of chamfering, smoothing the edges of the rough-hewn man she chooses, instilling in him an appreciation for a nuanced world apart from the aggressive, unruly male culture.
If Mr. Blight’s coaching helped make men of us, what the girls learned while we were off at manual, in time made us better men. Made us husbands and fathers. And now as evening approaches, I wonder if even today the way we see ourselves and the world around us is in the light that lingers from the lamps and lessons of our youth.
-- Tom Kiske