William Sprankles @wsprankles
My name is Dennis Simpson. I’m writing this story during the final days of my thirty-six years as an educator. My entire career has been in a field that’s evolved from Shop Class, to Manual Training, to Industrial Arts, to Technology Education and most recently, Engineering Education. I’ve been an active participant through almost all of these changes in name and content.
Throughout my career I’ve been fortunate to experience great success as a teacher. This year my school bestowed upon me the title: Princeton High School Teacher of the Year. The staff of our school newspaper asked for an interview about my long career and new title. Among the information reported in their article was a statement that I originally began my teacher training in music education. This surprised many of my colleagues. Obviously my plan changed at some point. I hope you’ll enjoy the following story as I recount events that influenced my decision to switch from a teaching career in the fine arts, to teaching the practical arts. Over ninety-nine percent of everything in this story is absolutely true!
I grew up and continue to live in the extreme southwest corner of Ohio, right on the Indiana/Ohio state line in the little community of Elizabethtown. I attended the elementary school there; and when my classmates and I completed 8th grade, we took part in a graduation. I mean a real graduation with a speaker, diplomas and caps and gowns. We had arrived at the end of our formal education. To us, high school was considered optional – a form of “higher education” that existed for the high and mighty that really wasn’t necessary for us normal folks. The girls got married and the guys got jobs. Out of a graduating class of twenty-eight students, eight of us went to high school, five of us graduated and two of us went on to college: one went to find a husband, and I went because I wanted to be a music teacher.
The first time I saw my high school was my first day of class. The first time I saw a cross country race, I was running in it. I experience my first football half-time show, from the field as I played in the band – the band with the longest name in the state: “The William Henry Harrison Senior High School Marching Wildcat Show and Concert Band.” The fact I’d never experienced these things before wasn’t because I was deprived. This was before the invention of helicopter parents. In those days parents were our chauffeurs. Parents were people who worked from sunup to sundown. They were people who didn’t have time to use their offspring to compensate for the shortcomings or glory days of their youth. My ignorance of what high school was going to be like proved to be a blessing because every day was new and exciting.
During our first couple weeks of school I met a lot of new kids. One of those was John. Except for being especially tall, about 6’4”, John was just another kid. He wasn’t very smart. He wasn’t very smart at all. He didn’t say much either. And he had this strange, obsessive/compulsive habit of putting his hands where they shouldn’t be – right over his private parts. Teachers would tell him to stop. Kids would tease him. The girls would laugh. Then he’d raise his hands as if the victim of a holdup. But a minute later his hands slowly descended right back to where they shouldn’t be. One day I asked John, “Why do you always put your hands down there, over your privates?” John said, “I don’t know…..it’s just somethin’ I do.” It wasn’t a very satisfying answer, but at the time it was probably the best answer John could come up with.
After the opening weeks of school, John disappeared. From time to time we’d see him before school, but one morning we saw John get on one of those short buses and disappear beyond the horizon. We never knew where the short bus went; but with the finely tuned logic of a fourteen year old boy, I speculated he was probably receiving shock treatments or being hypnotized to keep his hands in a more appropriate location.
Another person I got to know was Mr. Meyer, our new basketball coach. Harrison’s team had won only one game in each of the last three years, so Mr. Meyer – this short, first year teacher – had a herculean task before him. His challenge was to turn a bunch of farm kids into a team that could win more than one game per year.
While the challenge was daunting, most people were anticipating great changes for the coming season. They were certain Mr. Meyer was the super hero who would cause outsiders to sit up and take notice. You see, Mr. Meyer was actually Fritzie Meyer; a name almost everybody in Greater Cincinnati knew. Fritzie Meyer had been the point guard on the University of Cincinnati basketball team. He was good, and the team was good. You couldn’t help but hear his name at least once every minute during radio and television broadcasts of the game. The NCAA named him an All American. That is, an All American on the 5’10 and under team. And now Fritzie Meyer was ours, our short little savior who’d descended from his heavenly cloud of celebrity to pull us from the depths of basketball despair.
As the clouds of doom were parting and the sun began to shine through the gloomy gymnasium, our cheerleaders were inspired. I mean the cheerleaders were really, really inspired. With the eternal optimism of youth, our “spirit bunnies” concluded the basketball team was going to be good. No, the team wasn’t going to just be good, they were going to be great! The cheerleaders decided to demonstrate our faith in Coach Meyer by committing to a truly monumental act. With all the wisdom and tact a group of high school girls could muster, they decided to make a tombstone for every team on our schedule. They marched down to the shop and begged us guys to cut out twenty large tombstones from sheets of plywood. We then we used a machine to engrave the letters R.I.P. and painted each stone with the name of a team on our schedule. We also helped strip the walls of the gymnasium to the sterile environs of an operating room. This was done so that as we crushed each opposing team, their corresponding tombstone could be hung up to celebrate our superiority and intimidate all those who would follow.
All of these things occurred before Title Nine and the increasing importance of girls sports. With boys basketball being pretty much the only game in small towns during the winter months, teams would schedule games virtually every Friday and Saturday evening. We played the first two games of the season – and lost. Two tombstones ended up in the dumpster Monday morning. The next weekend we lost two more games. Once again we saw two tombstones in the dumpster on Monday. This pattern came to be such a routine that we didn’t bother looking in the paper for our team’s results. We’d just look in the dumpster. This went on until at the end of the season, we hadn’t won a single game.
The students were not happy, the fans were not pleased, and the administration was considering a coaching change for next season. But then tournament season began, and we won the first round. Then we won another game and another, until we’d won the sectional trophy. These last gasp victories resulted in a respite for Mr. Meyer. Our coach was coming back for another year! But now with the glaring eyes of an entire community looking down on him, his challenge was even greater. Coach Meyer was in desperate need of an answer.
The next school year, my sophomore year, I was assigned to Mr. Meyer’s homeroom. We sat in the lower section of the Doris M. Lusk Memorial Auditorium. Mr. Meyer stood on the floor, right in front of the stage, in an area we called the orchestra pit. He’d take attendance, read the morning announcements and after ten minutes we’d be on our way.
Let me tell you about the auditorium. On the surface it looked pretty normal, but it had a unique feature I don’t think you’ll find today. There was a button, THE BUTTON, on the back wall. No one was permitted to push the button without special security clearance and a FBI background check. When the button was pushed, the back curtain parted revealing a giant accordion style wall which slowly opened to reveal the Don Rolfes Memorial Gymnasium. You could see bleachers along the opposite wall where the fans would sit during games. If the crowd grew too large, the wall was opened and the overflowing masses were marshaled into the auditorium seats. It was a great setup for Mr. Meyer because he could walk right from homeroom to the gym where he taught phys-ed.
One morning a couple of weeks into the school year, Mr. Meyer took attendance as usual. Then he said we would wait a few minute before reading the announcements because a new student was joining us today. With a subtle sense of anticipation, we waited. I noticed Mr. Meyer appearing especially short this morning as he stood in the “orchestra pit” while leaning back against the stage. With arms outstretched, his shoulders barely cleared the stage floor.
And then it happened. Somebody – I don’t know who – maybe it was a custodian who bumped “the button” with his broom handle, caused the stage backdrop and the wall to slowly open.
Do you remember that scene from the Blues Brothers? I’m referring to the scene toward the beginning of the movie where Elwood Blues drives the former police car up to the gates of Joliet State Prison to pick up his brother, Jake. The two fifty foot tall prison doors slowly opened with the sun shining through, backlighting Jake as the booming musical ovation proclaims to the audience someone special is coming back into the world.
That was our scene as the stage wall slowly opened. The sun and lights were simultaneously shinning through the ever expanding opening; and there, backlit with divine light, was this giant, glowing, adonis of a man. I watched as our diminutive, little Mr. Meyer, standing in the orchestra pit, slowly turned around. As he looked toward the heavens, I’m certain I heard the strains of the Hallelujah Chorus radiating from his entire body.
Because the sun was in our eyes, nobody could quite make out the identity of this new student. But I knew. Even though this behemoth of a man-child had grown nearly half a foot since I first met him, I knew. He had his books in one hand, and he was holding his crotch with the other. It was John! John had triumphantly returned from his battles with the short bus, and we knew he had been victorious! We knew because his hand was firmly planted right where it had always been.
As for Mr. Meyer, he was awestruck; he was speechless. He slowly ascended the steps to the stage floor; and like that closing scene from Sleepless in Seattle with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks joining arms and looking into each other’s eyes as they walked to the elevator, Mr. Meyer escorted John off the stage and to his assigned seat. John, who had grown to the astounding height of 6’ 10”, was going to be Mr. Meyer’s new best friend. Mr. Meyer had found his answer; and now John was going to have a mentor, a mentor to help him through school, to make people stop teasing…..and to give him a basketball to hold onto rather than his private parts.
John didn’t know much about basketball. He really didn’t know much about anything. He and I ended up in the same Industrial Arts class. Industrial Arts was the term we were required to use. We were prohibited from calling it Shop Class. If someone misspoke, they were sentenced to one day in the cage. The cage was where hand tools were stored. Everyday a different student would either take their turn, or be sentenced to work in the cage. Like a librarian, this student would write down names and check out tools to whoever needed them during that period. More than anyone, John would forget to say Industrial Arts instead of Shop Class. As a result, John spent a lot of time in the cage. He was in the cage so often, he began falling behind on his assigned projects. It seemed to me that calling our class by the proper name was an easy thing to do. So one day I asked John why he kept saying the wrong thing. John just looked at me and said, “I don’t know……it’s just somethin’ I do.”
John struggled, but ended up passing all of his high school classes. In basketball, he wasn’t the best. But at 6’10” it didn’t take much for him to catch the ball from his team mates and toss it in the basket, not to mention getting the rebound on nearly every play. During his first year on the team, we won six games and were close in several more. In our junior year, the team split the season with ten wins and ten losses. By our senior year, the basketball team rose to the status of our other sports teams, and for the first time ever, Harrison High School won the INKY trophy. This was a trophy presented to the Greater Cincinnati high school with the best combined record of all its teams.
During his senior year, John was recruited by several college basketball coaches. When scouts visited, they were impressed by John’s height. But when asked about how John was doing academically, Coach Meyer would always say, “He’s improving.” John ended up signing an athletic scholarship with a small northern Ohio college, but he came back home after only a few weeks. His SAT scores were pretty good, which was later attributed to a minor scandal involving our class salutatorian taking the test for nearly a half dozen of our athletes. Once on campus, John realized he couldn’t handle the rigor of college classes. We didn’t know exactly when, but we eventually realized John dropped out of college and had returned home for good.
The day after graduating from high school, I was offered a job washing cars at a Ford dealership in Harrison. Over the next three and a half years, I advanced through a series of jobs at Baker-Reedy Ford, while also attending Miami University. Early in my studies at Miami, I began questioning my choice of music as a major. I soon came to realize I loved my high school music classes, much more than my ability to love music itself. I was a good musician, but I wasn’t great. I was confident I could be great at other things; but since I had a plan other people supported, I continued doing what I thought they wanted me to do.
While my first quarter of college proved to be a challenge, I was going gangbusters at the Ford dealership. However, I had one bad habit in common with most young men of that time period: we thought we could do anything; we were fearless. When asked if I could wash cars, I naturally said, “Sure.” When asked if I could drive a manual stick shift, I’d say “Absolutely.” One day the repair shop needed someone to take the wrecker out to a remote lot and pick up a car. They asked if knew how to drive the wrecker. Despite never sitting behind the steering wheel of a wrecker in my life, I said, “I can do that.” So they gave me the keys, some directions, and sent me to pick up a car at a little salvage yard somewhere between Harrison and Oxford, at least five miles from the nearest home or business.
I eventually located the salvage yard. Everything looked pretty normal, but no one was around to check me in. From the road, I could clearly see the car I was supposed to pickup. Now nobody told me the car was pulled into the salvage yard at night when the ground was frozen. I happened to be there in the afternoon on a sunny day. As I pushed the accelerator and headed across the dirt infield of the junkyard, I began to sink. I thought, “No problem, I’ll just rock back and forth until I get back to the road.” I didn’t realize how well built and heavy a wrecker actually is. Every time I’d rock one way and then the other, the wrecker sank deeper and deeper into the mud. Eventually I was in mud up to the axles and the only direction I was moving was down. I didn’t know what to do. Nobody was around. Nobody drove by. We didn’t have cell phones in those days to call somebody to solve our problems. No, it was up to me to get out of this mess.
After about an hour, I heard a sound far off in the distance. The sound grew louder and closer until I realized the sound was from another wrecker. The wrecker stopped at the entrance and a man got out. Low and behold, it was John. I ran up to him and said, “John, old buddy, old pal…..I’ve got troubles.” I’ve got a wrecker stuck in the mud up to the axle, and I’m gonna be in a world of hurt if I don’t get it out.” John looked at me with a blank stare. Again I appealed to him, ”What do you think? Can you pull me outta there?” He replied with a stark, monotone voice like that of a robot, “I do not have permission to make unauthorized tows.” I said, “What do you mean, unauthorized tows?” He repeated, “I do not have permission to make unauthorized tows.” I attempted to argue my case by telling him no one would ever find out that he helped me, and no one was even around to witness his “crime”. John insisted he couldn’t pull me out because he was “working on the clock”. He had to pick up a car and be back by a certain time, time he couldn’t waste by helping me. I said, “How do you expect to pick up a car in that pigsty? Can’t you see what happened to me?”
John simply got back in his wrecker, turned it around and backed up to the entrance. Then he got out, pulled a couple control levers and let out a bunch of cable from the winch. He pulled the cable across the yard, hooked it to the car and pulled it across the muddy field to his wrecker. He then hooked the car to the cradle and was ready to leave within a few minutes. I ran over to him and exclaimed, “John, where did you learn to do that? How did you know to not drive out in the field, and how did you know to pull the car to you with the cable?” He looked at me with a blank stare and echoed his response from the past saying, “I don’t know……it’s just somethin’ I do,” and then he drove away.
So there I was, alone again, just me and the Titanic sinking ever deeper in the ocean of mud before me. But then, a light went off in my head; John inspired in me to a moment of brilliance. I started the wrecker, let out a bunch of cable and pulled it across the yard to the base of a utility pole near the entrance. I then used the wrecker’s own winch to pull itself to the road. My moment of genius continued as I turned the wrecker around and emulated John by using the cable to pull the car to me. Within minutes I was on my way back to the shop.
As I was driving my mud encased chariot, towing behind the plunder of my past two hours and leaving a trail of mud even a blind man could follow, I thought of John. How could this dim witted character make me, a college-man, look like such an idiot? My thoughts turned to biographies I’d read throughout elementary and high school, biographies of great men recognized as the brightest and best of their time (being a male myself and growing up in the sixties, it was mostly men we read about in school). There was Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Winston Churchill, all of whom had struggled or dropped out of school. While they succeeded despite, or in spite of, little formal education, they all had something going for them. That something could have been their drive, passion, curiosity, vision, commitment or any number of other character traits. But the one thing I never read about any great person is that they followed someone else’s plan.
By the time I drove the wrecker back to the Ford dealership, I’d decided to continue my pursuit of a teaching degree, but not in music. While I loved and recognized music education as an honored and absolutely necessary part of our world, it wasn’t my “something”. My something had to do with the excitement I felt every day of high school. My something had to do with the momentary burst of brilliance from the seemingly ordinary, majority of students. My something had to do with the practical application of academic knowledge, so that learning comes alive in the classroom. This was my calling; this was the basis of my plan. This became my career.
After my epiphanic day of revelation in the muddy salvage yard, I never saw John again. In our class reunion program, about ten years ago, his name was on the page listing classmates who had passed away. No one knew what happened or why, but his time on earth had passed. Coach Meyer left coaching and teaching the same year John and the rest of our class graduated from high school. Mr. Meyer is still around, in a very public setting, but teaching apparently wasn’t his “something”. As for me, the decision to switch career paths turned out to be a good one. In 1985 I was named Ohio’s Technology Education Teacher of the Year during a time when every school in the state still had at least three or more such teachers. I still play and love music, but today I’m good for singing in my small church, or playing in a Christmas caroling hay ride, or around a campfire with a small audience of friends.
Everyday I see teachers doing all kinds of good work. Often this work is part of our job description. When asked why a teacher is addressing a certain standard, or trying a PBL (project based learning) project, or taking a class titled Positive Discipline, the answer is almost always logical and predictable. But there are other times when the public asks why a teacher works long hours; or asks about a teacher paying for a needy student’s project supplies; or why a teacher gives of their time for charitable events, parades, cookouts and contests. It’s these times when the answers becomes less clear. Sometimes there isn’t a logical answer, or a predictable answer, or an answer that makes much sense to the non-educator. Sometimes our best answer should be: “I don’t know……it’s just somethin’ I do.” It’s just something we do!
By Dennis Simpson
Princeton High School, Technology Education Department Chair
36 Year Educator –