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Shop Knives
by Jerry Robbins

Add up all my surveying days in the blistering sun in dense woods amidst carnivorous jiggers and ticks, and my days as a construction worker laying a roof with locusts buzzing in the oppressive August heat, and evenings shoveling three feet of heavy, compacted frozen snow off my sidewalk and those labors don't even come close to the pain and exhaustion brought on by one day as a substitute teacher in the Baltimore City school system.

A dear friend who happened to spend her time as the Superintendent of Baltimore schools needed a replacement for a sick teacher  and she thought as a young pastor and youth worker, I would be just right for the job. I thought she was a candidate for sainthood to work at her job, but I had no idea how close she was to beatification until I agreed to be the lamb led to slaughter at a downtown(i.e.urban) Baltimore school.

My assignment was simple. Take care of the boys shop classes for the day, and do my best to keep them from killing each other.  Having grown up in safe and serene suburban Baltimore, I had no idea what she was talking about.

"You mean these are violent kids ?" I asked Superintendent Walters.

"Three boys were badly beaten up just last week," she answered. "But I am sure you can handle it."

Saints may have a good heart, but that sometimes gets in the way of their sound judgment.  I was not at all sure I could handle it. No church camp experience I had included any beatings.  Some bullying, but no violence. I felt like an alien coming from another planet to save Eorg, the Kingdom of Death.

My intuition was not far from the truth.  Shop class in downtown Baltimore schools had one purpose, to trick the teacher into thinking you are doing what he asks, while all the time you are making a lethal knife out of an iron rod.

This was not clear to me.  All I knew was I was supposed to help these youths learn how to use a lathe. The lesson plan was complicated.  It read like instructions for assembling a nuclear-armed missile.  Besides, there were not enough lathes to go around. This meant a pile up at each lathe.  I should have known this was a formula for trouble.  By huddling around  the lathe the kids could hide what it was they were actually working on.

So in order to look like they were working obediently, one kid would read the manual, "Insert one and one half inch stock into a spindle, and tighten. Round one end." Then there would be a rustle of activity and the screeching of the cutting blade.  Young men with very large geeky goggles hovered over the activity.  I could not see exactly what they were making, but they weren't punching each other, so I let it be.

But not all the lathes were humming productively.  The farthest from the desk had rattled to a halt and there was some pushing and shoving among the boys. Just then a loud scream pierced the air, and one of the boys fell to the floor.  "You dirtbag," one boy yelled and proceeded to kick the prone body which rolled around helplessly "You %#*^%!!scum," he said, as if to clarify the charges.  The victim raised himself up on one elbow and was swiftly kicked back down.  All the time, the other boys were jumping up and down and hollering loudly, their goggles bouncing oddly on their faces. It looked like a scene out of a horror movie, "Attack of the High Hopping Shop Monsters With Big Eyes."

Although I did not want to get into the middle of this drama,I decided something had to be done. I asked the nearest lathe crew what was going on. "That dude on the ground was talking about taking a girl out," one kid said.  "Happened to be the sister of the guy who was kicking him around. It's alright." 

"No I don't think so," I said and immediately five ridiculously goggled boys turned to stare at me which was a lot of funny goggles looking at me at once. "Go  over there and break it up," I said in my best authoritative voice.

"No way," he said, "if you want them to quit, you will have to stop them yourself."

I had to think about that.  I thought of all the defense courses I had taken in my life. None.  How would I fair in the midst of these boys?  Poorly.

So I had to come up with a non-violent strategy.  Warn them that I knew the Superintendent of Schools and she wouldn't like this behavior at all.  Too weak.  Threaten them with expulsion if they didn't stop.  Too strong.  Who was I, a lowly substitute to bring that off?  Try a little reverse psychology? "O.K. go ahead and injure, maim and kill each other, what do I care? I'll be out of here by the end of the day." But they might actually do it.

I decided to try to make a deal with a the rabble-rouser. I swaggered over to the fracas slowly so as to not seem too shocked or inexperienced at this.  They didn't seem to notice.  All the boys encircled the kicker and the kickee and shouted not nice words.  Finally, when I huruuummmphed loudly they parted and I confronted the violent one. "OK. Stop that," I said.

"Go drown in the harbor, old man, who are you?" he said.

"I am your teacher, and what you are doing here is unacceptable," I said.

"You can't tell me what to do, you have no authority," he said.

I thought for  second.  He was right.  I was just a fill-in, and a bad one at that. But I still had my wits. "OK let's make a deal," I said.

"Oh, sure," he said.

"Here's the deal," I said. "You quit this stuff and I'll let the class out ten minutes early."  Surely a win-win.

"Dude, make that fifteen minutes," and he eased back from one last swing at his prey.

The rest of the class period went as expected.  A slight scuffle at Lathe#3, allegedly between two rival gang members.  One student asked to be excused because he felt sick from the punch in his gut that his "friend" had given him. Much looking out the window at the girls below. Three excuses to go to the bathroom (e.g., take a smoke).  There was more covert activity at the lathes.

As the time rolled around for their early dismissal, the abusive class leader marched up to me and demanded, "OK, your part of the deal." I checked the clock on the wall and listened to the class countdown. Precisely on the dot, they bolted for the door.

It was the hardest day of my life, but I considered it a moderate success. No one was killed in class, and I collected 15 newly made knives at the door.  I also smuggled out a pair of goggles which I proudly mounted over my office desk.