Thursday, September 24, 2009

What a twerp learned from an S.O.B.

We are sometimes asked, as I was recently, to recall a favourite teacher, and to cast our minds back in the warm glow of memory to recapture the formative wisdom imparted by the beloved mentor.

But lessons are sometimes learned in odd places from strange men. Such a man was one Mr. R, who "taught" Grade 9 Shop in my 1950's high school.

The reader should have in mind that this was a very different time, a time in which mastering the QWERTY keyboard was thought to be of value only to the stenographic gender, the personal computer being three decades away from conception.

It was a time when a skilled trade enabled a man to be a decent "provider," and Mr. R was charged with the responsibility of helping us take the first small steps down the road to becoming tinsmiths, carpenters, mechanics, and machinists. Or at least to give us a working knowledge of the tools and machines we would encounter in the factories and on the farms. He took this very seriously.

For many of us, the world of work would, of course, require very different skills, but none of that could be known then.

Mr. R was a hard boiled old bastard who had no use for those who lacked an aptitude for the manual arts. Unfortunately, that described me pretty well. My incompetence with the lathes, soldering irons, bandsaws, planers, metal benders, and so on were a major disappointment to him, and he disparaged my inadequacies every day, at great length and in a very loud voice.

He frequently demanded to know why I couldn't be more like star pupil Bob, who was effortlessly producing ingenious engineering marvels while I couldn't turn out a simple sugar scoop, a question that begs an answer to this day.

Well, you get the idea. His distress was no more acute than my embarrassment. We couldn't wait to be rid of each other. He agreed to give me a passing grade. I agreed to stay away from power tools.

But, perspectives change, and the lessons learned from frustration, failure, and pain stick forever. I realize that, through no fault of his own, Mr. R taught my 13-year-old self quite a bit.

I learned that:
• Training needs to be combined with aptitude.
• Respect can only be earned.
• Go with your strengths and things usually work out.
• Case hardening apparently is different from tempering.
• Some pricks should never be allowed to teach children.

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