How I Flunked Wood Shop
Why You Won’t See Me Fondling Woodworking Tools at Sears
I was fortunate to grow up in the 50s with a then very progressive California educational system. The minimum educational requirements for a public school teacher in those days was a Masters Degree – my French, English & math teachers had PhD degrees with the latter being the co-author of the trigonometry text that the school used. As a math and science nerd I was taken aback when I was informed upon entering 7th grade, that all boys were required to take wood shop. I certainly understood the necessity for the girls taking Home Economics – that was going to be their future (remember – this was the 50s). My negative reaction to the course was tempered a bit on the first day of class when I spotted a display of the intriguing projects that we would be constructing during the semester.
The first project was a rather simplistic, basic one – we were tasked with making a sanding block to be used in future projects. A sanding block is basically a rectangular piece of wood around which sand paper is wrapped facilitating it’s mission to smooth out the target wood. On day one of class, the instructor issued us each a block of wood, which was slightly larger than the required dimensions of the finished project. We were told to mark the wood with those dimensions and then simply deploy a wood plane tool to size and level the wood block to its required size. We were admonished that the finished work must be square, level and of the exact specified size, and the work would be checked by the instructor with a square (at least I believe the tool was called that) and ruler.
I eagerly marked my block of wood with the required dimensions and enthusiastically began the process of using my trusty plane to finish the project with dreams of future exciting projects dancing in my mind. On day two of class I brought my finished project to the teacher who after placing his square on my sanding block announced that it was not level. Further attempts to finish the block caused me to go beyond the required dimensions and the teacher patiently cut me another block of wood to finish. That block of wood again failed the teacher’s scrutiny, as did my next couple. By then, most of my classmates had gone on to more exciting projects such as tie racks, etc., as I continued to deploy my plane tool with negative results.
Weeks went by, and I still had not been able to successfully complete my sanding block. With each new approach to my teacher now regarding me with a suspicious eye prior to applying his unforgiving tools to my efforts, I became increasingly frustrated – especially as I eyed the now even more complicated projects of my peers. Mercifully, the semester ended and I had not even completed the first, seemingly simple project. I received the only “F” grade of my academic career.
Not until today, some 51 years later as I did a solo, boring, multi-hour bicycle ride with plenty of contemplative time did I finally understand the rationale for the class. I believe that one of the functions of the class was to demonstrate that society cannot successfully function with only those who excel in academics, but requires a joint effort of varied talents. I discovered that the student who might not be a candidate for a physics class is capable of doing things that I neither can nor want to do.
But there’s more….
Fast-forward a few years. I was now an engineering student at the University of California, Berkeley, taking the multi-hour class, Engineering Manufacturing Processes. One of my projects was to design, manufacture and build a plane tool (like the one I was unsuccessfully able to utilize in my wood shop class) made totally out of metal. In that no wood was involved, I completed the project and ultimately got an “A” in the course. Fortunately, I was never asked to demonstrate the use of my project!