Woodwork or Latin

A FRIEND POSTED A PICTURE of something he had created in wood at school when he was about 14 or 15 years old. It looks to be an extremely competent creation. Seeing this, reminded me of when I had to attend woodwork classes at roughly the same age at my secondary school, Highgate in north London.

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Once a week, under the watchful eye of the woodwork teacher, Mr Bowles, I participated in a woodwork class in the school’s specially equipped workshop. Mr Bowles was well-known for saying of the timber he supplied in the class:

“Don’t waste it. You know that wood does not grow on trees.”

Although many years later, I was able to perform complex manual tasks whilst practising dentistry, in my early teens I was not skilled at performing three-dimensional manual exercises. I could draw and paint reasonably well, but model-making and woodwork were not amongst my skills.

I struggled with a tool called the sliding bevel when trying to create dovetail joints, which seemed to be of great importance to Mr Bowles. We were set what he regarded as simple tasks. With great difficulty, I completed two of these. I produced a tea tray, which was next to useless as it was only able to rest on two of its four corners at any one time. The bookshelf which could hold up to eight average thickness paperbacks suffered the same problem. Somehow, I had managed to introduce a twist into it so that its two ends were not in alignment. My parents, for whom it was suggested by our teacher that these would make fine gifts, were totally unimpressed. It would have been dishonest of them to have been otherwise.

My prospects of becoming a skilled carpenter were not looking great. Then, my fate changed suddenly one afternoon. I had just finished the school day and was walking across a polished wooden floor, when I slipped and fell. As I began to get back on my feet, I noticed that my left wrist was bent in an unnatural way and was a bit painful. Having recently completed a first-aid course, during which we were taught to tie complicated bandages instead of learning resuscitation and life support, I realised that I had most probably broken a bone.

I walked over to the caretaker’s home across the school’s quadrangle and found him. He said that he would ring my parents and while we were waiting for them to arrive, he gave me a cup of tea and biscuits. This kind gesture meant that I had to wait several hours before it was safe for me to have a general anaesthetic for setting my arm at the nearby Whittington Hospital.

My arm was encased in plaster, which remained in place for six weeks or longer. This accident was a lucky break for me. First of all, my popularity rating rocketed. Prior to my accident, many of my school fellows believed that I was rather unexciting and unadventurous, not even a ‘nerd’. Seeing my arm in plaster, suggested to these classmates that I must have been up to no good. Maybe, I had fallen out of a tree or had an accident on roller skates or on a bicycle. I kept quiet about the innocuous cause of my fracture and enjoyed experiencing the increase in my ‘street cred’. Even after my plaster was removed, my schoolmates retained their improved opinion of my personality.

Doing woodwork with one arm in plaster was not thought advisable. So, I was excused from the second and final term of woodwork classes. Actually, I doubt that using only one arm would have affected my woodwork much, as it was already appalling with two arms. 

At the end of the school year during which we had to study woodwork, we had to make subject choices. Basically, the choice was to follow the ‘arts’ or the ‘sciences’. The choices were history or physics; geography or chemistry; and … wait for it … Latin … or  … woodwork.  To be honest, the latter was a ‘no brainer’ of a choice. Woodwork did not get my (or my parents’) vote. But, as it is good to be truthful, my Latin was barely better than my woodwork. Although I struggled with Latin at school, it has proved useful especially when studying anatomy and, also, when wandering amongst tombstones. As for woodwork, Mr Bowles might be pleased to learn that over the years I have put up several shelves that were able to carry heavy loads. Now, as you read this, do not get any ideas about getting in touch with me to put up shelving in your homes.

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