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‘Metal Shop’

In The 70's on September 8, 2011 at 1:34 pm

A new program that had been initiated at Nathan Hale Middle School in the mid- seventies involved the trade classes. Home Economics, Metal Shop, Wood Shop went co-ed, partly as a result of the women’s liberation movement that was suddenly front page news.

Home Ec. was desirable to both sexes, in that, for six-weeks it involved cooking and more importantly, eating. For a typical class, we were divided into teams of two or four and had to follow a recipe to completion in one of several mini kitchens. The best part was that we got to eat the assignment. (In the past, this task had been relegated to imaginary dogs)

My specialty was muffin pizzas, which may sound simple, but evidently was not, as we had to make them every other class. I vaguely recall cooking blueberry muffins, filling celery with cream cheese, and tossing cherry tomatoes around the room- but it is only the pizzas I actually remember eating.

Since I was usually teamed up with Chad Reed, it was difficult to get graded before Chad devoured the day’s assignment. I would complain to the teacher, Mrs. Barry- who would point out that it was partly my responsibility to control my partner by refraining to ‘serve’ the food until she made her inspection. Did she think that Chad would be deterred by not having a paper plate?! He’d grab a muffin or three right off the baking sheet like a crafty seagull,  while I was still taking them out of the oven or looking the other way. And why was I always serving him?!

‘Am I supposed to guard the oven?’ I would ask, to which she would reply, “You do what you have to do. Someday you’ll be in charge of your own kitchen!’

Obviously, this woman didn’t recognize the take-out type when she saw it.

Meanwhile, Chad, standing behind her, would be making faces at me, pointing, faking a belly laugh, and mimic eating more invisible food while crossing his eyes. When Mrs. Barry turned around, he would instantly look doe-eyed and apologetic, eyebrows knit, shaking his head like: ‘I know! She’s incorrigible!’ and then give me the finger after she walked on to the next group, marking another big, fat zero in her grade book for me and Chad.

“God-you take it so SERIOUS!” he huffed, reaching around me to wipe some stray crumbs off the counter, and licking his finger.

“Yeah- well it’s kinda hard to explain to my Dad how I can only pull a “C’ in Home Ec, Chad. He thinks this is a class that should (here I imitated a low ‘dad’ voice) ‘come naturally to all broads!’

“Well he’s right!” Chad answered, not surprisingly. At which point I faked punching him in his protruding stomach, just to see him jump.

Another new co-ed class was a combo Metal/Wood Shop, taught in the same room by the same teacher, Mr. Gates.  He was the ‘good looking’ male teacher at Nathan Hale, and a fuss was made over him by the teachers, lunch ladies, substitutes and visitors. He was six-feet tall, with a slim, muscular build, and had surfer-blond hair, parted on the side, a bit longer than most teachers would normally wear. He had a rugged complexion, the hint of a tan even in winter, and smiling blue eyes. Everyone compared him to a young Robert Redford, and he did resemble the Hollywood star. (I knew this because I had actually seen Robert Redford and Paul Newman in real life, as me, the Wreath boys and Toni gathered by the woods one  day last summer.  Newman (driving) and Redford came whipping around the blind corner on Wolfpit Road in a brand new Porsche 911 Turbo. Startled to see a group of teens hanging out on the side of the street, they  suddenly downshifted, slowing to a crawl. They proceeded to drive by super-slow, and waved at us, flashing their hundred watt smiles. Newman lived the next town over, but we’d never seen him. At the time they were BIG Hollywood stars. We stood there, shell-shocked after they passed by, o-mouths, eyes popping! At some point we started screaming, high- fiving and arguing over who they actually waved at. (Of course-as you can probably guess- it was me!)

As for Mr. Gates- he had a ‘cool-guy’ vibe-and he was a very laid-back teacher. He  wore khaki pants and tucked in long-sleeved button down shirts, usually in pastel colors, with a tie which always looked half-undone, as though he might pull it off at any minute.

We loved that he didn’t yell and ran a very loose ship. He barely even took attendance, and taught by going from workbench to workbench, rolling up his sleeves and demonstrating the technique of the day to individual students. Most of the girls sat together and chatted, passing out gum (it was allowed!) and gossiping, and we rolled our eyes and giggled when Mr. Gates approached us with a demonstration.

“Isn’t that dirty?’ we’d ask, upon being presented with a sheet of metal. Followed by ‘Ewww!’ and ‘That’s gonna break my nails!’ We supported the women’s lib movement, but also embraced being girly-girls, when it came to getting out of class work.

“Well, at least read the worksheets, girls!” he’d say, before quickly moving on to the boys, many of whom actually wanted  to learn these skills.

Me and Toni were thick as thieves in this class, looked forward to a class where nothing was required of us other than to show up. We sat together and clucked like hens, traded jewelry, braided each others hair, and even painted our nails (not full manicures, but we fixed the chipped ones) We did all of this as we sat, twirling around in our high, bar seats in the back. We were constantly snorting with laughter, pointing at and mocking classmates, and doing busy-work- such as dividing up our cigarettes to be ‘even’, or seeing who could blow the biggest bazooka bubble. As long as we kept it on the down-low, Mr. Gates didn’t mind.

The only time Mr. Gates actually asked us to do anything was when he needed worksheets. He would hand me and Toni an example of which sheet he wanted, tell us to count the students (“and by all means, count yourselves in, girls!”) and then have us fetch them from a small storage room, located behind a door in the back of the shop.

Inside there were metal shelves holding worksheets and boxes of  metal bolts and screws. Several old, green file cabinets, and a heavily blinded, dusty window added to the overall drabness of the room. The window looked out onto the side parking lot, across to the tennis courts that no one ever used. Toni and I would play with the string on the blinds, up and down, light, dark, light dark and look for signs of life outside (there was none). We’d then snoop in the file cabinets (old instruction manuals- nothing good) and eventually  count out the worksheets, bringing them to Mr. Gates.

“Can you please pass them out to everyone?” Mr. Gates would ask, obviously expecting us to do so, to which we’d roll our eyes (haven’t we done enough?!)-sigh, and reluctantly make a pass around the room, snapping gum and avoiding eye contact with anyone except maybe the cute boys. But for everyone else, we’d hold each sheet up with our thumb and forefinger, hovering over the workbench in front of a classmate, until letting it go mid-air, leaving said student to either catch it, block it or hunt under the table to where it whisked off the desk, floating for a moment before winging sharply to the ground. It’s times like these when I wish I could go back in time and kick my own ass.

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