shop_class

Shop Room, 1992

My shop teacher is Ratman. Not his given name, of course, except in the sense that junior high kids have given that name to him, behind his back, for a small eternity.

Strictly speaking, Ratman doesn’t teach “shop.” In keeping with the educational nomenclature of the times, Shop is now called Tech. But it’s still shop. His classroom is a dank garage, where the temperature drops 10 degrees from the rest of the school, and the walls are lined with aluminum shelves holding old, busted tools covered in a thick layer of sawdust and metal shavings.

Shop class requires repeated use of drill presses and bandsaws and other things that can kill you if used incorrectly. Ratman constantly warns about the danger surrounding his students at the top of his lungs, in a window-rattling howl that suggests he is not so much warning against harm as he is actively attempting to cause it.

He was dubbed Ratman due to a confluence of unfortunate physical characteristics. First, he is tiny. Four feet tall, if that. He is just tall enough to not be a midget. He also has a long, pointy, rodent-like nose, and a pair of beady eyes made even smaller by a pair of coke-bottle glasses. He owns a shrill, piercing voice that can cut through steel. He also has one leg that is shorter than the other. His pace is evened out by a shoe with a block of wood. It hits the ground with vicious CLUNK as he patrols his classroom.

shop classroomA man of such description should have thought twice about choosing teaching as his vocation. He especially should have run screaming from teaching at the junior high school level. That he didn’t is either a reflection of a serious lack of perception or a byproduct of his unique personality. I’m inclined to side with the latter interpretation, because Ratman is a complete bastard. It’s hard to say if he was a bastard to begin with or if he was made a bastard by years of teaching bastard high school kids. The why’s don’t really matter to me, because regardless of the reason, he is a bastard and I must deal with him.

Much like a religious cult’s compound, Ratman’s class possesses an air rife with the constant threat of recrimination. Ratman is fond if descending on you with no warning and shrieking “WHATTA YOU DOIN?” directly into your ear. This seems counterproductive to his stated aim of teaching safe workroom practices, but his philosophy is “Do as I scream, not as I do.”

You never hear Ratman coming because you swear he’s on the other side of the room. Somehow, he is able to blunt the sound of his clog as he sneaks up on you. Once he accosts you, you protest that you’ve been trying to do the work but you don’t understand the instructions, but it’s no use. He knows you were just messing around and sees through your every flimsy excuse. “GET BACK TO WORK!” he wails. (Like Owen Meaney, another diminutive mythical character, Ratman’s every word must be rendered in all caps.) By the time you resume working and turn around to ask if you’re doing it correctly, he has moved on to berating another slacker 50 feet away. There’s no way he can he move that fast, you tell yourself, but clearly he can.

Ratman’s shop class is an introductory one. It teaches you the absolute basics of using the tools, but not how to use those tools to make anything useful. “Assignments” consist of using the drill press to put two holes in a piece of wood, or employing a hacksaw to slice a long piece of metal into bite-size three-inch slices, thus rendering the material completely unsuitable for anything.

Most kids, myself included, get their “homework” back from Ratman and immediately toss it in the nearest garbage can, wary of bringing home two wobbly pieces of aluminum soldered together in their backpacks. Others try to flush their projects down one of the school’s few working toilets. The real winners carry the pieces around all day and see how many kids they can smack in the back of the head with a screw-filled block of wood until the weapon is confiscated.

I am not handy, and Ratman’s voice slices through my brain like a bread knife. His raging harangues make me nervous, which leads to painful mistakes. Once, I put my hands down on the workspace in front of me without looking, forgetting that there’s a plugged-in glue gun there. I unknowingly lay a finger down right on the glue gun tip, which is heated to roughly 8 billion degrees.

When I tell Ratman I accidentally burned myself, he howls “WHADJA DO THAT FOR?!” Furious, he retrieves a pass to the nurse’s office from under his desk. The “pass” is an untreated three-foot-long block of wood. By the time I get to the nurse, I have to ask her if, in addition to my burn, she can also treat the splinters I received on the journey.

The next time I hurt myself in shop (cutting the tip of my middle finger on the bandsaw when I push a plank through it too quickly), I decide a nurse’s pass is more trouble than it’s worth. I suck it up, rip a piece of looseleaf out of my US history notebook, and wrap it around the wound.

Other than screaming, Ratman’s biggest contribution to the cause of industrial safety is a short film he shows once a year. “Film” might be stretching the definition of the art form. In truth, his production is a series of stock photos of equipment, unsafe operation, and horrible accidents, that proceed one after another like a slideshow, intercut by blood red title cards printed with words like DANGER and HARM and PAIN. The “film” is accompanied by a jazzy/bluesy instrumental soundtrack that fails to match the terrible images by such a large margin it comes all the way around again and matches perfectly. If you want to know what would happen if a middle school shop teacher tried to make his own version of Un Chien Andalou, this is it.

My only defense against the obtuse horror of Ratman’s class is my subtle wit and artistic skill, which takes the form of a series of Ratman cartoons that I draw at my spot in shop class. We don’t have desks, but sit instead on stools that are way too high for most junior high kids, around a large wooden slab laid across a bank of tool cabinets. On the surface of the wood near my spot, I draw Ratman in a Batman-type cowl and cape, with a logo that resembles the Dark Knight’s and a matching Ratmobile. But whereas Batman fought crime using the power of darkness, I depict Ratman employing his special powers to sneak up on kids and scare the shit out of them while they’re trying to negotiate a belt sander.

I have an intense fear of getting in trouble, but this is my one serial transgression. Some poor souls feel compelled by forces they can neither understand nor control to shoplift or start fires. I scribble on desks. However, in other classes, my desks have slick surfaces that I can wipe clean before I leave. In shop class, I’m pressing ballpoint pen into wood. I can hear the grain crunch under the ink. This means permanence. This means true danger.

How I think I’ll get away with doing this, I don’t know. I’m too impressed with my own unique brand of satire to consider it might end badly. My cartoons get increasingly elaborate, scratched into the wood for every class that follows to see.

One day, I arrive in shop class and discover my work station has been altered. The huge block of wood has been topped with a thin slate of particle board, bolted into place. The board isn’t quite the same shape as the wood beneath it, sticking out at certain uncomfortable points. But this aesthetic failing is countered by the fact that the board is nearly impossible to draw on. After weeks of laying out my biting comments on this canvas, Ratman discovered my cartoons—why it took him so long, I can only guess—and the particle board was the only solution he could devise to remove them from everyone’s sight.

I spend the rest of the year quietly waiting for retribution to come my way, sensing an invisible guillotine hanging over my head, ready to drop any second. It never does. If Ratman knows it was me, he keeps it to himself. He continues to treat me like garbage, but he treats all of his students like garbage.

The year ends. Time passes. Ratman retires from the school, but I continue to joke about him at the lunch table and on the school bus. The fear that I’m due for a comeuppance dies away slowly. I turn 16 and need to take a five-hour course to get my driver’s license. The course is held over two nights at my high school. On the verge of reaching this milestone, I believe I am an adult, invulnerable.

But when I arrive for night one of the course, I discover, to my horror, that the class is taught by none other than Ratman. It’s the scene in every horror movie sequel when the monster reappears and the soon-to-be victims howl, “No! It can’t be! We shot you in the chest with a flare gun last summer!”

For the next two nights, I’m treated to his ear-punishing tones screaming at me about the rules of the road. His approach to vehicular safety is identical to his approach to shop class safety: a one-man reign of driver’s ed terror.

“YOU START UP THE CAR, YOU’RE LISTENIN TO THE ROCKY-ROLLY MUSIC, NEXT THING YOU KNOW BAM! YOU’RE DEAD. WHAT HAPPENED?!”

His words echo against the faces of 25 once-hopeful teenagers stunned into silence.

“YOU DIDN’T LOOK IN YOUR REARVIEW. THERE WAS A GARBAGE TRUCK COMIN UP THE STREET AND HE JUST PLOWED RIGHT INTO THE DRIVER’S SIDE OF YER CAR. YOU DIDN’T HEAR HIM BECAUSE YOU WERE TOO BUSY LISTENIN TO THE ROCKY ROLLY MUSIC AND NOW YOU GOT A STEERING WHEEL IN YOUR CHEST.”

Ratman’s method of impressing on us the dangers of driving while intoxicated was to tell us the “TRUE STORY” of a guy who got smashed, then got behind the wheel and hit an animal on the road on the way home. The next morning he stumbled into his garage to discover that he hadn’t hit an animal. “HE HIT A BABY. IT WAS STILL IN HIS GRILL. THINK IT WON’T HAPPEN TO YOU? THAT’S WHAT HE THOUGHT, SMART GUYS.”

It is easy to poke holes in this story from where you’re sitting, in front of your computer or tablet or phone. It is another thing to have a tiny monster everyone calls Ratman screaming it in your face when you are 16, and all you want is your damn certificate so you can go take a road test.

Two nights and five hours later, I stagger out of that class, withered, broken. It will take me four tries to get my license. I make ridiculous mistakes during my road tests that I never make when practicing at home, and it’s not just performance anxiety. Every time I get behind the wheel of a car for a road test, I hear Ratman bleating in my ear “BAM! YOU’RE DEAD!”

You may escape justice for a day or a year or a decade, but one day it will find you. Ratman could have nailed me while I was still in his class. Instead, the bastard waited in the shadows and brought down the hammer at the moment he could damage me the most.