Little Shop Class of Horrors
As a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old, I loathed and feared the idea of vulnerability. Who could blame me? The harsh environment of most junior high schools, where the weak are preyed upon by the strong and the smallest sign of frailty can result in an atomic wedgie or worse, is enough to give even the most ardent Social Darwinist pause. The school I attended, Dassel-Cokato Middle School, was situated in the country between two very small towns. Some people might think that my school, with its rustic atmosphere, would have a more generous, kind-spirited attitude than its suburban counterparts. They would be wrong. Surrounded on all sides by miles of corn and bean fields, many of my classmates seemed to turn to cruelty and viciousness simply out of shear boredom. Whatever the reason, life at my junior high school was like life at most junior high schools; in other words, it was terrible. I was generally a good student and I had some friends, but I was nowhere near the top of the social pecking order and simply maintaining my low position required constant effort.
In the midst of this struggle, I was thrust into a daunting new environment that threatened to shake the core of my already anemic self-confidence: shop class. In order to churn out well-rounded individuals, my school required that each student take two quarters of the “Industrial Arts.” Most boys my age seemed delighted at this prospect, but for me it was a nightmare. In my mind, the ability to work with my hands was a skill that I was content to leave in a state of permanent atrophy and I wanted to learn to use power tools about as much as I wanted to go to prison. But I was not given a choice, so, on one brisk winter morning, I found myself attending the first day of shop class.
The teacher, Mr. Osborne, did nothing to inspire my confidence. He was tall and skinny with a flushed face and a shock of wispy white hair on the top of his head. When his mouth closed, his lips formed a condescending sneer that seemed to say, “I’m helping you because I’m being paid, not because I care about you.” It was this ugly mouth that I was watching on the first day of class. Mr. Osborne had gathered us in a rough semi-circle around one of the jigsaws and was explaining the safety rules for using the machine.
He pointed to the thin, vertically-aligned blade of the saw and stated, “This is not a toy and you will not treat it like one. The blade is designed to cut through wood, but it can just as easily cut through skin and bone if you’re not careful.”
He held out his thumb, directed our eyes to the top joint and said, “Always keep at least an inch between your fingers and the blade. In all my years of teaching, only one student has had an accident with a saw. He was messing around, not paying attention to what he was doing and you know what happened? He cut the tip of his index finger off. He had to have it sewed back on. There was blood everywhere.”
During this lecture, I happened to be standing next to a girl named Rose. She had moved to my school the previous fall and I did not know her well, but she was tall, husky and had a reputation for being a bit of a bully. While Mr. Osborne was telling us his “Parable of the Inattentive Student,” I noticed a change come over her. I saw all of the color drain out of her face. I do not know exactly what physiological responses cause a person’s skin to become suddenly and immediately pale, but it looked as if the blood in her veins had been replaced by liquefied chalk. To me, it appeared that death was near. Then, as if to confirm my suspicion, her eyeballs rolled into the back of her head and she staggered backward against the table she had been leaning against. Then, without warning, her muscles shut down and she crumpled onto the floor like a pair of discarded pants. I watched this astounding event unfold from a distance of one foot.
Mr. Osborne stopped his speech and went to Rose. He seemed more annoyed than worried, but he called the school nurse who quickly came and helped Rose out of the class. After they had left the room, Mr. Osborne picked up with his lecture, but his audience had become distracted. While the air around me hummed with a mixture of shocked murmurs and amused snickering, I stood in silence. In my head, I watched Rose collapse in a repeating slow-motion replay that paused each time to focus on the ghostly blank stare of her sightless eyes. As Mr. Osborne continued to explain to us the terrible things that would happen if we misused his machinery, I was overwhelmed by nausea. My eyesight blurred and I began to see a company of tiny black ants dance along the edges of my vision. All at once, my pores exploded with sweat, but I felt like the room temperature had dropped ten degrees. I cannot personally attest to what transpired next, but afterwards I was informed that my skin took on that familiar white-death hue and I proceeded to perform a nosedive onto the polished granite floor. Unlike Rose, who had the grace to simply collapse in a heap, I toppled head-first, my body as straight and inflexible as a two-by-four.
Ten seconds later, I regained consciousness and found myself lying on the floor. I had no idea what had happened, but I could sense that things were amiss. The world was spinning and I could not see clearly, but I noticed that my glasses were mysteriously bent and lying next to me, instead of on my face. Mr. Osborne called the nurse and, for the second time in less than ten minutes, she came to escort a sick student out of shop class. Even with her assistance, I barely managed to make it through the door before I collapsed against the wall and had to bury my head as far into my knees as it would go. Eventually, the gyrating of the world slowed enough to allow me to get back on my feet and, small step by small step, we continued the long trek to the nurse’s office.
I was placed down on a cot next to Rose who, amused at our combined infirmity, proceeded to make me feel even more miserable than I already did. She looked at me and said, “Well, I guess we both just have weak stomachs. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Her words were meant to comfort me, but they had the opposite effect she intended and I resented her for it. I did not have a weak stomach! Maybe her stomach was unsound (and as far as I was concerned there was something wrong with that!), but mine most certainly was not. I was just as strong and normal as anybody else and I certainly had not been bothered by the teacher’s graphic descriptions. I was a boy and that meant that I enjoyed discussing gruesome topics like losing digits and bleeding profusely, right? The real reason I had passed out was that I had seen Rose do it first and my body had, for reasons unknown, been forced to mimic her. In other words, all of this was her fault!
These were the lies that I told myself in an attempt to reestablish a sense of invulnerability, if only in my own eyes. Certainly I would be teased about blacking out (“Hey kid, did you have a nice trip? How was your fall?”), but if I could convince myself that personal weakness had not been the true cause, maybe it would not hurt as badly. Armed with this strategy, I went back to shop class the next day and managed to survive. I almost always wished that I could be anywhere else, but I did my time without further incident or embarrassment.
Looking back on that day with a decade of hindsight and a bit more maturity, I can see the dishonesty in the things I told myself while in the nurse’s office and I realize now that Rose was right about me. I do have a weak stomach. I have not passed out since that day but I’ve come uncomfortably close quite a few times. Even today, a particularly grisly discussion may occasionally send me searching for a place to sit down and hug my knees before waves of vertigo sweep me under. I have learned to live with these infrequent, but unpleasant experiences. I also know that Rose was right about something else; we are all weak and vulnerable at times and there’s nothing wrong with that.