All I Really Need to Know About Life I Learned in Shop Class

by Deborah Copaken
Originally Published: 
A white wall with tools in various shapes and sized attached to it in a shop class

The only time I felt truly at peace and unified as a teenager was in shop class. Yes, you read that right: shop class, the place where all the burnouts and stoners who would amount to nothing, or so we were told, had to learn basic life skills with power tools so that they could at least get jobs as manual laborers when they grew up.

And yet I didn’t understand this built-in shame of shop class as the place of last resort for the wretched. To me, shop class was the most pure and tangible moment of joy in my otherwise theoretical day of equations, historical dates, black holes, and verb conjugations.

Given a piece of wood, a saw, and some power tools, all of my masks, doubts, and insecurities fell away. It was just me and the materials at hand: cut here, drill there, throw some wood glue into the gaps and voilà, a solid something miraculously arose from nothing. A simple box. A bird feeder. A little shelf for my glass menagerie.

I made these things with my own hands, and it was glorious.

Fast forward 35 years, to middle-aged, broken me, newly separated from a marriage, down on my luck, and moving my kids from our fairly large family home into a small rental that needed shelves in the kitchen, shelves in the bedrooms, peg boards for coats, and new shower heads in both bathrooms.

But here’s the thing: not only were these not daunting tasks on the to-do list of a newly single mother, they were tasks I secretly relished to-doing. Thank you, shop class.

In our previous home, the closets didn’t even come with hanging bars, much less shelves. I did some research into the fancy closet companies that come to build these things for you, but they were all out of our price range. So I measured the space, ordered the raw materials, had them shipped, and then built the closets myself with a 26-year-old surfer to help with muscle power. I did the same in the kitchen, without the surfer, completing a pretty intense renovation on my own. All this from one shop class in seventh grade.

© Leo Kogan

When you get right down to it, power tools should not be daunting, and it’s a shame junior high school shop classes have fallen by the wayside. Every girl and boy in America should learn how to hang a shelf, drill a hole into drywall, use a saw, and do basic repairs. And every man and woman should own at the very least a drill, a saw, and a basic tool kit.

I recently saw this this Indiegogo campaign for the “Coolbox“—a toolbox of the future, replete with Bluetooth speakers and a white board!—and my mouth literally started to water.

For the five years that we lived in that family home that I renovated with my own two hands, the shelves stayed solid. Even as my marriage was crumbling. And pulling my clothes and cereal bowls from them every morning gave me a burst of secret pride: I made these, I would think to myself. I made them! And if I can build shelves in this home, surely I can rebuild them—and my life, from scratch—in another.

A few days ago, I bought a piece of wood for an art project I’m working on (I’m making mixed media flowers on plywood, as a way of healing, I think, who knows why we do anything?), and by accident I had Midtown Lumber cut the plywood into slabs measuring 2’ x 4’, when I actually needed 2’ x 3’ slabs. Doh!

But because I own a simple saw, a measuring tape, and a pencil, this wasn’t a problem. Just like back in shop class—just like at the end of my marriage—I examined and took stock of what needed to be excised. I measured it carefully and drew a straight line. Then, without standing on ceremony, I took out my saw, rolled up my sleeves, and started cutting.

© Deborah Copaken

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