Mr. Ski was the Metal Shop teacher at my Junior High School. Like many with long Polish last names, it was shortened to ‘Mr. Ski.’ But it was not, in his case, because we couldn’t remember his full name. Everybody knew his last name and could pronounce each tongue-twisting syllable if given the time. The abbreviation was merely for convenience.
You see, Mr. Ski was legendary in our school. Not merely well known or well liked, but truly legendary in the manner of some terrible, ancient god. More feared than worshipped, he was like one of those sea monsters so dreaded by ancient mariners.
That kind of legendary.
Only we really met our Dreaded Monster. The seafarers of yore never had to contend with the dragons that supposedly lurked at the ends of the earth. We actually had to face, and somehow evade, the Awful and Inevitable Wrath of our monster.
Long before we arrived in seventh grade (Junior High ran from seventh through ninth grades in our neighborhood), those of us with older brothers had been regaled with tales of how Mr. Ski had thrown hammers at kids who had angered him, sending more than a few to the nurse’s office with bruises and bloody gashes. My own brother told me how he had been chased around the shop by Mr. Ski who, brandishing a pair of tin snips, wanted to cut his long hair.
He appeared to us like the some sort of mega-bully. Someone you would dare not offend, and yet you knew that you couldn’t help but piss him off if you spent enough time in his presence.
People like that always found an excuse to get angry and slap you down.
Worse, he was a teacher. So this was a bully with a power that our other bullies—the garden variety schoolyard type—only dreamt of: The sanction of the authorities; a veritable license to terrorize and intimidate. And he was a bully from whom you couldn’t possibly hide. You had to appear before him each week in his shop.
All you could do was to be like some small mammal during the age of dinosaurs, hoping to make yourself sufficiently small and insignificant as to be of no interest to the T-Rexes of your world. You scurried about from rock to rock and took care of your rodent-business as best you could, but if he noticed you and felt like a snack, you were paleo-history.
And there was no doubt among us that Mr. Ski was the biggest, meanest damned T-Rex that ever walked our world. No one else was even close.
The funny thing was that the older kids who related these tales of horror and violence seemed to speak with a sort of admiration for Mr. Ski. You could tell they liked him, and it wasn’t some kind of Stockholm Syndrome emotional-attachment-to-the-abuser thing. They actually seemed to think he was cool; something unheard of in a Junior High teacher.
Frightening as they were, Mr. Ski stories always seemed to be told with a smile and a laugh—even if the smile was in the form of a sneer and the laughter a bit harsh. Their reaction was akin to that received by a particularly clever racist joke or the many ‘dead baby’ jokes that were popular at the time. You would laugh because of the irony while grimacing at the cruelty.
In those days (the late 1960s) our school had two groups at the top of the social ladder. There were the “good” kids, who rose via traditional means: sports for the boys; cheerleading and afterschool clubs for the girls. And then, with a pecking order totally separate from the “good” kids, were the “bad” kids.
They were the ones who got in trouble a lot and generally resisted all authority. Even though it was the late 1960s, the Hippie Fad hadn’t yet fully arrived in our medium-sized East Coast city. So the rebellious ones weren’t the long-haired types who dominated the bad kids’ scene a couple years later, it was the tough kids.
Most of them were the offspring of factory workers, skilled tradesmen and owners of small businesses who had, in the boom of the postwar years, become sufficiently prosperous to move to the suburbs. They mostly came from the tough immigrant neighborhoods in the cities and they instilled that toughness in their kids. This meant that the guys at the top of the bad kids’ world were the best fighters and the most aggressive, most heartless bullies.
Now you would expect the bad kids to look up to Mr. Ski. After all, he was one of their own who had grown up and made good. He represented their aspirations—not so much to become teachers—but to be able to carry their bullying ways into their professional lives.
Funny thing was that just about all the older kids seemed to think Mr. Ski was cool, even the good kids.
(…well the guys anyway. Girls in shop classes didn’t appear until a couple years later. And because Mr. Ski was loud and often harsh, the girls neither liked him nor understood the high regard he enjoyed among their male counterparts.)
Maybe it was because, we had to confess, he had style and a sense of humor. Sort of like the way a drill sergeant punishes his recruits. Not merely mean, but creatively mean in a manner designed to simultaneously elicit laughter from the other sergeants and sorrowful groans from the recruits.
When we got to seventh grade, we had Wood Shop and Mechanical Drawing the first half of the school year and Metal Shop in the second. During those first months, our anxiety mounted as we caught brief glimpses of Mr. Ski loudly castigating students in the hallway. If he was that scary in the hall where everyone could see him, what must he be like in the confines of his shop, far from the eyes of the other teachers?
After Christmas break when we entered his shop and finally faced him, we didn’t actually see him throw hammers or anything. But his bellicose manner and harsh threats of punishment for the slightest infractions kept us certain that a hammer-throw was always imminent. We were sure that his lack of violence was due to the fact that we were so terrified, so utterly intimidated that we didn’t dare misbehave. Were we to slip that harness only slightly, we were certain that the hammers would commence flying in earnest.
And his appearance reinforced the point. About forty, he stood at least 6’4” and was lean and strong looking without appearing either skinny or overly muscular. Something like Clint Eastwood with an anger-management problem. He looked like the sort that—if he were to punch you—you’d stay punched, well and good. When he yelled at you it seemed like it was all he could do to restrain himself from cold-cocking you on the spot.
One topic on which Mr. Ski dwelt long and loud was cigarette smoking. It was his favorite gripe and nary a class went by without at least a sharp comment on the subject. The walls of his shop were festooned with posters decrying the dangers of smoking, most of them crafted by students (toadies!)
It was his fervent desire to rid his school of all teenage smoking and he went at it like a man with a mission. His most dire and terrible threats were always reserved for those who might be caught grabbing a butt.
This was a worry for me because, like most of the kids in the bad crowd, I smoked. Back then, cigarette smoking was what you might call entry-level rebellion and I aspired to join the “fast” crowd. As such, I felt it my teenager-ly duty to scour the ends of the earth, forever on the lookout for anything I could do that would really piss off my parents.
As you can see, smoking offered a splendid opportunity to get started.
Still more worrisome was how Mr. Ski began berating Steve, a classmate, about his smoking.
“Hey Steve,” he bellowed one day, early in the semester, “people have been tellin’ me you’re a smoker. Whaddya say, kid, are you a Marlboro Man? What’s yer preference, reg’lar or menthol?”
He fixed him with a deadly gaze.
“Neither, sir,” Steve replied, with an obvious tremor in his voice.
“That’s not what I heard, man,” he shot back, wearing an icy grin. “And my sources are pretty good.”
“No sir,” Steve repeated, almost cringing, “honestly, I’ve never smoked a cigarette in my life.”
“DON’T LIE TO ME!!” he roared, “‘cause God help ya if I catch you in a lie!”
“No sir, I swear I don’t. Those guys are lyin’ about me”
Every day he’d confront him anew and it was always the same. Mr. Ski would say he had fresh reports of Steve’s smoking—each more detailed than the last—and Steve would offer a slew of fresh denials. It became a regular feature of Metal Shop class, like putting on our safety glasses or lining up for roll call.
The reason this worried me so is, as aforementioned, I was a smoker too and if his ‘sources’ could tell him about Steve, they might mention me as well. Worse, Steve and I were buddies and members of a group of five or six who met every day in the woods behind school to grab a quick smoke. Each day before and after classes, the same group of friends huddled together sharing cigarettes and banter.
So my worries were more than a little well founded. I mean, if Mr. Ski found out about Steve, and Steve did most of his smoking with me, it stood to reason that he’d soon catch on to my Dread Secret.
Week after week, the standard litany of accusations and denials repeated itself and each time I trembled in fear of the day I would replace Steve as the object of Mr. Ski’s Special Attention. It went on through the Winter and early Spring, and it was always Steve who was the target of Mr. Ski’s wrath. The more Steve denied smoking, the more Mr. Ski seemed hell-bent on getting him to admit it. I had begun to think that his crusade was so important that he might ignore the rest of us in his drive to obtain a confession from Steve.
It was, I think, around mid-Spring when I discovered just how badly I had been mistaken.
By that point in the semester, we didn’t need a lecture from Mr. Ski to start the class. We had all been assigned our projects (cold chisels, if memory serves), and had begun work on them So we just showed up, answered roll call, and went right to work. Mr. Ski wandered amongst us, checking to make sure we were doing things according to his instructions.
I was busy grinding or sanding or something when Mr. Ski spoke up in a loud voice:
(Earlier in the semester, he had decided to begin addressing me as ‘Willie,’ even though no one else ever had.)
Everyone stopped working and turned around.
“I hear you like to do THIS!”
He pretended to be smoking—with very exaggerated gestures—making a loud sound as he drew in, and then exhaled the smoke from his imaginary cigarette, waving his hand airily.
I know it’s a hackneyed cliché, but my blood ran cold. I guess it’s what they call the Fight-Or-Flight Syndrome, but at that instant I felt as if all the blood had drained out of my arms and legs. If you’ve ever been in a position where you’re trapped, utterly doomed and you know it, you’ve felt what I’m talking about. Your whole body suddenly feels like it’s made of lead.
Although thoroughly panicked, I had the presence of mind to realize that I had to come up with some sort of an answer, and his fierce look told me that he’d brook no delays or stammering.
“…um, Yes Sir.” I replied in a clear voice, gazing down at my feet.
(WHAT????? OMIGOD!!! WHAT DID I JUST SAY??? OH, YOU INSENSATE FATHEAD!!! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE??? YOU’VE JUST SLIT YOUR OWN THROAT!!!)
“Well you better not…,” Mr. Ski began, but stopped, clearly perplexed. It was obvious that no smoker had ever truthfully answered that question.
“Well I want you…,” he began again, still unsure of how to react. “Uh, gimme your parents’ phone number,” he resumed, speaking quickly. “I’m gonna call ‘em up tonight and tell them that you’ve been smoking.”
As he walked away, back toward his office he added, seemingly as an afterthought, “And I want you HERE,” pointing at the floor, “IN MY SHOP, right after school!”
Well as you can imagine, my gaffe was the talk of the school for the rest of that day. The smart money had it that I would be greeted upon my entrance into the shop with a flying hammer (some opined it would be two since, after all, Mr. Ski had two hands and he was all about efficiency), and that a ghastly series of tortures—augmented by an array of power tools employed in novel and exotic ways—would follow that.
The prospect of his phone call to my parents didn’t worry me though. It’s not that they wouldn’t react to the news with many powerful strokes of Dad’s belt, followed by a long period of rigidly enforced social isolation. It’s just that the long odds were, as I said, in favor of the prospect that I wouldn’t live long enough to suffer their wrath anyway. So I didn’t give it much thought.
That was the longest afternoon of my young life. (Again with the clichés!) As any death row prisoner will tell you, it’s the awful waiting that gets to you. Contemplating your death is always worse than the actual dying. And I had the rest of the day (shop class was in the morning) to think about it. My fellow students, ever helpful, enhanced my anxiety with an endless stream of comments and speculations.
Worse, the Wood and Metal Shops were situated in their own wing of the school, so no one passed by their doors unless they had business in one of the two shops. Since that rarely happened after school, Mr. Ski would have absolute privacy when he rendered his Awful Punishment.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, his shop was the last one at the end of the wing. So the journey down that long corridor made me feel like some condemned convict walking his last mile. (But unlike those poor bastards, I wouldn’t even get a final cigarette!)
So as I walked, ever so gently and quietly down that hall, I thought:
“Bye, Ma. Bye, Pa. Bye, dreams. Bye, future.
O Heartless Fate! O Foul Destiny! Why have I been singled out for such a painful and untimely demise???”
I pushed open the door as quietly as I could. I guess I figured that if I entered the shop so softly he didn’t notice, it might delay the onset of my punishment for a few seconds.
No sign of him. Could it be…..?
I took a few steps forward so I could see into his office and, to my profound and overwhelming disappointment, there he sat with his feet on the desk reading the sports page.
“Hiya Willie,” he said in a somber tone. “Well I see you showed up. It’s a good thing for you that you did.”
He flashed a menacing look.
Then he paused for a moment, looking down and appearing thoughtful.
“Awwright, you showed up. Now get outta here.”
He dismissed me with a wave of his hand and looked back down at his newspaper.
(The warden has just run up with a pardon from the governor!! My execution has been called off at the last minute!! I’m to be released! I’m going to LIVE!!! I’m going to LIVE!!”)
As I walked out of the shop, absolutely baffled by my turn of good luck, the truth about Mr. Ski began to dawn on me. Now I can’t say I realized it all at once, it probably took the rest of the school year to fully sink in. But it was on that day that I began to awaken to the truth:
Mr. Ski was kidding! He was putting us on! It was all a bluff, designed to amuse him (and those who were in on the joke, like the older kids and now me) during his long, boring hours in the shop.
Now that I understood, it was screamingly funny to see all those petrified seventh graders scurrying wildly about in hopes of avoiding the alleged flying hammers. Their hushed discussions about how Mr. Ski went off and almost killed someone (‘…it happened to a buddy of mine’s brudder!!’) were now hilarious, although I couldn’t let on. Just like the older kids, I knew that it would only work if people believed his Deadly Temper was genuine. We, the elect few, knew better and I wasn’t about to ruin it.
And he never did phone my parents.
After that, it seemed that everything Mr. Ski did—outside of his teaching duties, about which he was quite serious—was with tongue in cheek and splendid wit. I began to look forward to his classes, and it helped my performance in Metal Shop too. I now wanted mine to be the best damned cold chisel in the whole damned class. (Turns out, it wasn’t.)
And Mr. Ski treated me differently. He still bawled me out when I did something stupid, but it took on the character of an outburst from a cantankerous and emotional mentor, not some enraged, unreasoning beast. Because we both knew otherwise, his chastisements no longer carried an implicit threat.
“DAMMIT, Willie,” he’d bellow, “don’t hold it like that or your new nickname’ll be ‘Stumpy!’ How many times I gotta tell ya? Now GET IT RIGHT, kid, or I’ll kick yer ass!”
I guess I had earned some measure of his respect on that Fateful Day. I never told him that it wasn’t so much bravery on my part, but the only option I saw open to me. After all, I had seen what happened to smokers who denied Mr. Ski’s allegations. So when Option A was ruled out, the only remaining course was Option B, no matter how unpleasant. There was no third option.
So it wasn’t courage. I was more like some poor critter who is tossed into a frying pan. He’ll jump right out, even if the only place he can land is in the fire.
And as I think about it all these years later, I wonder if maybe he knew it was my only choice and made it so in order to teach me a lesson: That it’s a lot easier to be honest in the first place and take your punishment than to prevaricate and dance around like poor Steve. He showed me that lying can trap you into an endless cycle of having to come up with new lies to answer new evidence. The constant, grinding anxiety it produced in Steve was a stark lesson for me.
So maybe Mr. Ski was teaching us about bravery. After all, many of the noblest acts of courage are performed by people who have to choose between facing danger—and the risk of being consumed by it—or just laying down and dying. It doesn’t mean that their blood didn’t run cold with stark, all-consuming terror while they were doing it. It’s just that, like me, they figured they had no other choice.
Maybe Mr. Ski believed that, by forcing his students into positions where they had to be brave, he could teach them the necessity of bravery in all times of crisis—be they great or small.
And only now do I realize how much of an artist he really was. We’re in the habit of thinking that all artists, all gifted poets are the people—mostly intellectuals—who are depicted as such in the popular media. But the Mr. Skis of the world are artists as great as Picasso, in my opinion. Perhaps greater, since their inspiring works are shrouded in anonymity, never to be known or appreciated by the cognoscenti of Arts and Letters.
By the time I left Junior High (I spent four years there because I flunked the Eighth Grade—Step Two in my campaign to enrage my parents), Mr. Ski had lost much of his popularity.
You see, the Hippie Fad had begun to catch on and, more importantly, the neighborhood began to change. Due to a sharp rise in property values, the makeup of the area had gone from neighborhoods of mostly blue collar workers to those largely populated by white collar workers and PhD technical types.
So now, instead of the best fighters ruling the bad kids’ sphere, it came to be dominated by middle-class pseudo intellectuals. Mostly skinny and long-haired, they weren’t physically intimidating, but they were every bit as brutal as the bullies of earlier years. You see, they beat up on people with slanderous gossip and other forms of malicious backstabbing, not fists. Their snottiness could be devastating.
In a way, they were worse, since you can see a bully’s punch coming at you, but you usually don’t see the intellectual’s blade until after it’s been slipped neatly between your ribs.
Because he was a loud, emotional blue collar type of guy, these kids never got the joke with Mr. Ski. Whenever he roared at them, they didn’t so much get scared (after seventh grade anyway) as wrinkle their noses and say, “What’s up with that dude? He’s such a dick, man!”
As I say, they never got the joke and, because Mr. Ski wasn’t like them, I doubt they cared to.
But those wonderful people like Mr. Ski who, when they got angry, acted angry and when they felt happy, acted happy shall live forever in my most blessed of memories. You knew what they were feeling because they weren’t afraid to show it. Their eccentricities were the tools with which they amused and educated us, the canvas upon which they painted.
These days, expressions of strong emotion—good or bad—are regarded as off-putting and even somewhat frightening among most of my yuppie brethren. The stiff upper lip (and the concealed dagger—always at the ready) is the order of the day. The Mr. Skis have fallen into popular disfavor.
And yet nowadays, more and more, these people have come to be my heroes. The folks who plugged away at their ‘ordinary’ lives just like the rest of us but, because of their wit and panache, made life more meaningful and fun for those lucky enough to have known them.
Whenever I think of the “heroes” fed us by the mainstream media: singers, movie actors, politicians, military generals and the captains of industry—and people like Mr. Ski, there’s just no comparison.
It doesn’t matter that they never became rich and famous.
I loved Mr. Ski.
WILLIAM B. MC LAUGHLIN
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED