Sunday, August 20, 2006


Tall, with slicked-back red hair, constantly clad in a white lab coat, Mr.Stapleford made morticians seem downright exuberant. Hell, undertakers were fucking riots compared to him. His movements were slow and deliberate, as if he were tired of life, or pacing himself towards some ultimate violent outburst, like the Terminator, but without the payoff of carnage. (Only the possibility of it.)

"This machine will not chop your finger off," he said. "It will slice it off. Slowly and painfully. And I don't want to clean up the blood."

Followed by a physical demonstration of a hunk of wood sliced (not chopped) by a swirling, whirling blade. And me, twelve years old, having recently been introduced to the blood-soaked words of King and Barker, Straub and Slade, suddenly confronted by my own potential for mayhem. Me, gulping, thinking: I'm now supposed to use this fucking thing? Thanks for the pep talk, teach. Mr.Chips ain't got nothing on you.

I've since seen first-hand Khmer Rouge killing fields and the ruins of Hiroshima, but nothing in life compares to the fear contained within the walls of my junior high Industrial Arts classroom. Everyone worked at their own pace, which usually meant that everyone else would move through steps one, two, three and four while I still struggled to somehow fit my plastic goggles over the bulky lenses of my Robocop glasses. (The cardboard kind used for 3-d movies were downright cozy in comparison to those protective lenses.) The ultimate end-result being, at the conclusion of one semester, a slew of barely begun projects littering my locker: blocks of misshapen wood, small slabs of ragged steel, never to be completed. Good-bye, metal box. Perhaps in another life I will make you mine.

I didn't actually give a shit about not completing the projects; I knew from the get-go in life that mastering carpentry would not be my ultimate destiny, that Bob Villa would never have anything to fear from me should we somehow, someday meet at high noon on a dusty street while tumbledweeds tumbled on by and the powerdrills in our hands began to pulse. No, what pissed me off was being made to feel like a spastic loser for not understanding how to operate a lousy lathe.

What saved me from failing the class -- both years -- were the tests. Tests, I could handle. I fucking hated them, yes, but I would study my ass off and end up almost acing (or at least passing) most of them.

Before each exam, good old Stapleford would slide giant wooden rectangles into pre-carved slots in our desks, so there was no conceivable way we could cheat. Jesus Christ! I remember thinking. This guy's a loony! What is this, Harvard? We're twelve-year old St.Catharines kids!

When handing back my first test, which I did quite well on, Stapleford held my eyes to his own, as if judging my competency and reliability, then said: "You were so incompetent with your projects that I was stunned to see you do as well as you did on this exam."

Was he waiting for me to admit to cheating? Was he hoping for a confession? I smiled a sheepish smile and took the paper and looked at the floor. I wanted to say: "How could I have cheated?What, do you think I burrowed a fucking hole into your dividers during the test? Is what you said supposed to be some kind of a compliment, you fucking prick?"

(And if you doubt that twelve-year old kids thought like that or spoke like that, then you must have forgotten what it was like to be twelve years old in the first place, in command of yourself and your language for the first time in your life. Willing to step outside of the parameters of enforced childhood etiquette into the liberating realms of vulgarity and scorn.)

But I survived. I didn't think I would but, I did, as most kids do. There were times during those days, lost in my own incompetence, when I would stare out the window at the freshly cut grass and deep blue sky and wonder when, or if, it would ever end. I didn't know that Toronto and Tokyo and Phnom Penh lay beyond the realms of those suburban streets. I couldn't have imagined it. All I had in front of me were projects that would be stillborn and mutant.

Eventually, it ended. Good-bye, wood chips. So long, metal box.

And now, whenever I feel the urge to criticize one of the Korean kids I'm teaching for some boneheaded error or another, I try to get myself to stop, and breathe, and chill. In their eyes, I may very well be their own version of Mr.Stapleford, white and foreign and speaking in a strange tongue only half-way comprehensible. I am big and they are small. They may remember my words, and those words might sting, even years later. And really: who gives a shit that they can't do this or that properly? They're kids, and it's our job to ease their passage into the tough and lonely years that lie ahead.

Memory lasts a long time. I'd rather they remember a pat on the back than a snide, snarky comment that can burn, even scar.


roselle said...

wow, that story brought back so many memories...and truth be told, my mind was already whirring along the lines of your last paragraph before i got there!

frankly though, there were pats on the back...i think some of us just choose to remember the slights...i've had some of the best teachers in the world - men and women who have added to my life so much that i am still friends with some of them...but i always remember with more clarity the ones who were slightly less than stellar!

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