Industrial Arts

By Michelle Railey

There was that time you were sitting at a wooden bar, talking to a friend who has a thirteen year old daughter. It’s a strange planet you live on, that one where one minute you are thirteen and the next you are a grown-up talking to another grown-up and the next generation of kidlets is thirteen. And you, well, you are not. Not even in dog-years.

Well, the girl wants a round loveseat. And you knew a girl who, at thirteen, thought life would be perfect if (a) she were a cheerleader and (b) she had a day bed.

Thirteen is a very, very special time, I think we can agree.

So, one second you were thinking about daybeds and megaphones and perfectly long, tan, magazine-caliber legs and then you were thinking about slumber parties, and then, before you knew it, you were catching Wendy when she passed out in Industrial Arts.

You were thirteen. Wendy was your friend. She totally passed out in class. One minute she was standing there, sanding things (Industrial Arts class was nothing if not an hour spent sanding things), the next she was folding over like laundry released from a line.

And, in one of your moments of serendipity (we’ll not say heroism), you caught her before her head hit anything hard.

There might have been two times you have caught falling humans: one was a toddler whose fragile neck and highly-mobile body was not being well-guarded by the parent on whose lap the toddler sat…on a moving train. (I know, right? The grown-up in me doesn’t understand, to this day how that happened.) So you caught the little toddler as she fell off her parent’s lap, head-first, on the moving train (and you still remember the coldness of the parent: how dare a stranger touch their child, let alone a teenage girl who kept a tender skull from the floor, but whatevs). And you caught Wendy, when you were thirteen. Wang Chung was playing softly in the background, or maybe it was the lunchtime spiel on pop FM radio, but Wendy passed out cold in Industrial Arts and you never really knew why.

And you got to thinking, because you were at a wooden bar and you were reminded of slumber parties and being thirteen, about Industrial Arts.

Why is it that for half a year you were asked to make two things: a ring toy that involved the shape of a man with a really long nose and a really, ridiculously crooked clock? What kind of premium did the teacher place on time that in five months all he asked us kids to do was to (a) make two things, (b) stand sanding every day for 45 minutes while pop radio played softly in the background and he told the boys to put the sharp things down, and (c) occasionally sit at our desks while he showed us slide projections of ball-peen hammers and hacksaws?

Thirteen year olds are stupid, but they’re not that stupid.

At least, when you were fifteen and required to take Industrial Arts, you spent your five months with a razor, balsa wood, and pictures of suspension bridges. Sure, you didn’t jigsaw anything but, hey, you built a suspension bridge out of balsa wood. Which is probably an improvement over boring wooden toy that is a big-nosed face with ring, but still, maybe not the most productive use of five months.

Still and all, Industrial Arts beat the pants off Home Economics: how many eggs can be protected for how many weeks? (No one really thinks egg-guardianship mimics parenthood. Do they still do that now? I bet not.) And if Industrial Arts required daily prayers to Our Lady of Sandpaper and C-Clamps, Home Ec required daily admonishments to Comet the sink and identify pictures of tripe.

You almost have to think that you and other children of the 1980s and 1990s wasted an awful lot of time.

But still, to this day, you can identify a ball-peen hammer in a line-up of mimeographed tools. To this day, you can say (not that you admit it to too many people) that the scent of wood dust and the warmth that hits the skin while sanding is vaguely comforting (so comforting it makes you want to write notes to all your friends, folding them up carefully, and passing them out in the hallway between classes).

Well, and you did catch Wendy’s head before it hit the floor. So, in your advanced years, Industrial Arts can also be that time you saved a girl’s life. Just add sandpaper and it might almost be true.

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