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Monday, November 1, 2010

Becoming His Hands

by Mark Hummel

He was a teacher.  I knew him, as so often we know our teachers, only in that context.  I knew nothing of him beyond the classroom, knew nothing of his past or his family.  Mr. Reed taught Mechanical Drawing to pimply-faced teenagers.  I knew him for one semester my sophomore year of high school.  I was in his presence for one hour each day, first hour, a time of day when most high school students remain asleep whether or not they are physically present.  Mr. Reed made first hour bearable and he made the products of drafting boards beautiful.  He was a teacher, one of the teachers I liked and respected, and, unlike most of his colleagues, even many of the good ones, he treated his students with respect.  He was one such teacher of several I was fortunate enough to have, among them, Mrs. Kouris, Mrs. Garcia, Mr. Botoroff.  Probably most students rarely get one such teacher.  I count myself lucky.  Mr. Reed made first hour bearable in part by allowing us to listen to music while we worked, so long as the class agreed on the music and so long as we finished our work.  This was 1977, and “Hotel California” had been released the Christmas before, and everything I recall about Mr. Reed and mechanical drawing is wrapped up in my enduring love of that album.  It is a wonder that love persists given how often we played The Eagles that year and a greater wonder that I’ve spent a good part of my adult life trying to be half as good of a teacher as Mr. Reed was.

While I knew virtually nothing about the man, I did know, we all knew, that he was sick, sick in such a way that he was frail, a man as thin as the mechanical pencils that marked his trade.  He had a quavering voice and difficulty controlling his fine motor skills.  He was sick in a way that could have set him up for the ridicule of high school males testing misplaced superiority onto authority, but instead he was the kind of teacher who we wanted to please.  Beyond the transitory recognition of his illness, I was typically high school ignorant.  Selfish.  If pushed, perhaps I knew his aliment was A.L.S., Lou Gehrig’s disease, but I certainly did not meaningfully understand the severity of his disease or calculate it as a death sentence.  He showed up without fail each morning as we expected teachers to do, drank his coffee at his desk, and every day he added a new layer of difficulty to the drafting assignments, just as every day once we started to work he quietly asked Phil Lucero to turn the music down a notch so as not to disturb the other classes.  Each day he offered a smile to weary teens, added an assignment that would challenge our limited abilities, and suggested a few, quiet words of advice experience at the drafting table had taught him.  Only as an adult do I begin to understand how much pain he must have been in, how he must have felt that his life was slowly being erased, day by day.  Only now can I recognize that his disease had already forced him into an early official retirement and he now taught a class or two out of devotion or habit or need, not quite letting go of that life he’d once had.

Looking back, I cannot tell if there was some facet of his disease that aided in the fondness and respect our class felt for Mr. Reed or if there was something innate within him that had always garnered such respect from students.  I knew him only, as is usually the case with our teachers, in the moment of my passing through those school halls.  He was the sort of teacher we labeled as “cool,” our highest compliment.  Who else let students listen to music as they worked on their own?  But beyond “cool” he was the sort of teacher you wished to make happy.  You wanted him to be proud of the work you produced.  Everyone in the room sought his praise.

This was years before computer-aided software replaced hard skill.  Mr. Reed was a perfectionist without ever saying so, a trait common to a profession that produced sheathes of precise documents for others who must then build the things the documents mapped in all their dimensions.  It was the sort of class where you were expected to master the precision with how you labeled and lettered your drawings long before you were deemed ready to add complexity to the drawings themselves.  It was a smartly conceived course that built week upon week and offered additional difficulty after each small success.  Every element had an exact placement and logic behind that placement.  Every line had an expected weight and heft.  Every pencil had an exact job to accomplish.  We learned precision.  We learned to raise our own expectations.

Sometimes, however, the world is cruel.  How often do the brightest minds develop Alzheimer’s?  How many musicians have gone deaf?  So often it is the most energetic among us who are cursed with MS.  Before it stole other things, A.L.S. robbed Mr. Reed of his hands.  So we, his students, became the hands he could no longer command.

Each morning Mechanical Drawing began with a demonstration, the development of a drawing for instruction in a particular technique or technical detail.  Mr. Reed chose one of the two or three best students in the class and had the rest gather around that student’s drafting table.  He stood behind the student, who was seated on a tall stool, and took hold of the student’s hands.  Then slowly, carefully, precisely, he guided the hands, one sliding the square, one gripping the fingers that held the pencil, and using those hands buildings and machines and intricate mechanical parts and tangles of electrical circuits emerged.  When a template was needed, or a compass or ruler or a heavier weight of lead required, he call out simple, precise instructions like a surgeon requesting an instrument.

Cheyenne Central High School, 1975 Yearbook

His hands wavered and quavered within the space of open air, but once they took hold of yours the trembling settled and you were surprised at the strength of his grip, the guiding power of his hand.  I am certain every student wanted to be chosen to become Mr. Reed’s hands.  Chosen, you negotiated the new terrain of allowing your own hands to become a conduit, found a balance point between executing the line the hand on top of yours requested and placing enough confidence in the steadiness of your own hand to complete that bidding.  The feeling was altogether foreign. He whispered commands, trying to stay a millimeter ahead of your hand, and you listened with absolute concentration. At the end of a demonstration, just before Mr. Reed distributed completed drawings of the next assignment and told Philip Lucero to cue the day’s music, often you marveled at the work before you on the table, and you felt the press of his hands long after they left yours.

Mr. Reed stopped teaching altogether after that year, and we heard news of his death a few years later, but if I try hard enough, I can still recall the press of his hands guiding mine.

(Mark Hummel is the editor of bioStories.)